India’s ‘Manual Scavengers’ Rise Up Against Caste Discrimination

Watching Bittal Devi deftly weave threads of different colours into a vibrant patchwork quilt, it’s hard to imagine that this 46-year-old’s hands have spent the better part of their life cleaning toilets.

Born in Sava, a village in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, Devi is from a community that, down the centuries, has worked as ‘manual scavengers’ . A caste-based profession, it condemns mostly women, but also men to clean human excreta in dry latrines with their hands, and carry it on their heads to disposal dumps. Many men also clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains with no protective gear.

Former manual scavenger

Former manual scavenger

They are derogatorily referred to as bhangis, which translates into ‘broken identity’. Most of those employed are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy and are condemned to tasks that are regarded as beneath the dignity of the upper castes.

“I started doing this job when I was 12 years old”, she recalls. “I would accompany my mother when she went to the homes of the thakurs (upper castes) in our village everyday to clean their toilets.

“We would go to every home to pick up their feces. We would gather it with a broom and plate that we would collect in a cane basket. Later we would take the basket to the outskirts of the village and dispose [of] it.”

Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh

Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh

They cleaned 15 toilets each day, which earned them 375 rupees (a little over six dollars) per month, plus a set of old clothes from the homes they worked in, gifted once a year during the Diwali festival.

She remembers that she was unable to eat the first week. “I would throw up every time my mother placed food in front of me”. Harder still to bear, were the taunts of her upper caste classmates.

“They would cover their noses and tell me that I smelled. I, along with the other children from my caste, was made to sit away from the rest of the students.” She eventually dropped out of school.

There was no question of refusing to do the work. “From birth I, like the other children from my community, was told that this was our history and our destiny”, says Devi. “This was the custom followed by our forefathers which we had to continue with.”

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and several legislative and policy measures have been announced over the decades to end the cruel and inhumane custom of manual scavenging.

As recently as September 2013, the government outlawed employing anyone to clean human feces.

On the ground, however, these measures have proved ineffective – the main reasons being that policies are not properly implemented, people are unaware that they can refuse to work as manual scavengers, and those who do resist face violence and the threat of eviction.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards the elimination of caste-based discrimination, there are an estimated 1.3 million ‘manual scavengers’ in India, most of them women.

Civil rights groups say that often women are victims twice over. Not only are they are looked down upon by the upper castes, they are also forced to do the work by their husbands who find it degrading, but expect the wives to continue with the custom.

Bittal Devi’s neighbour, Rani Devi Dhela, also started working as a manual scavenger at the age of 12, an occupation she continued with in her marital home, as her husband was unemployed.

She enrolled her four children in the village school, hopeful that education would change their future. Reality dawned when her 11- year-old daughter came back home in the middle of the day, sobbing.

“She had worn a new set of clothes to school and the upper caste children and teachers taunted her for showing off,” Rani Devi tells IPS.

Her daughter was told to clean up another child’s vomit and the school toilets. “When she refused they told her that this was her future as she was a bhangi’s daughter and that by attending school she should not entertain any illusions about herself.

“A teacher even threatened to pour acid into her mouth. That was the day I realised nothing would change unless I challenged these people. I put the cane basket down for good and decided that I would rather starve to death,” she adds.

It was a battle that Rani Devi found herself all alone in. The upper castes ganged up on her and her community failed to extend support. Worse still was the reaction from her husband and in-laws, who beat her up.

“The thakurs burned down our hut and told my husband they would throw us out. But my children supported me,” says Rani Devi.

Eventually so did a few other women, including Bittal Devi. Together, they travelled to a nearby town, to the office of the NGO Jan Sahas, which has been campaigning against manual scavenging for over 17 years.

“We had been trying to get the community in this village to stop manual scavenging but they were too scared to resist,” Sanjay Dumane, associate convenor of Jan Sahas tells IPS. “After what happened to Rani Devi, some of them decided to fight back.”

But there was fierce resistance from the village police who not only refused to register a complaint, but also advised the women to accept their place in society.

It was only after they approached police authorities at the district level that action was taken.

“A platoon of police vans came into the village with senior officers who warned the upper castes that they would be jailed if they were found violating the law on manual scavengers,” says Dumane.

As of early February 2014, manual scavenging is no longer practiced in Sava village. “Some of the upper castes have chosen to boycott us,” says Rani Devi. “They don’t invite us to their weddings or for festivals. But my children and husband are proud of me and that makes me happy.”

“A lot of people tell me you had no right to leave the profession,” adds Archana Balnik, 28, who campaigned to put an end to manual scavenging in her village of Digambar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “But I want to change my future and that of the children in my village.”

Most of the women who have quit have found work in road and bridge construction projects. A few have enrolled in Dignity and Design, a low-cost, community based initiative launched by Jan Sahas in the states of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh for the rehabilitation of women liberated from manual scavenging.

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh

“We provide training in basic skills like tailoring and embroidery and have set up units for manufacturing bags, purses and other products,” Aashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, tells IPS.

“We hope to set this up across India with the support of the government and private sector.”

Women like Bittal Devi and Rani Devi Dhela are the ambassadors of Jan Sahas, which claims to have liberated over 17,000 women from manual scavenging across different parts of India.

Changing attitudes across the country, however, is an uphill battle. The recent India Human Development Survey report highlighted how deeply entrenched notions of untouchability and caste purity are in contemporary Indian society, with a fourth of Indians practicing untouchability.

“There are signs of change especially in the younger generation, which is more educated,” says Shaikh, whose NGO conducts awareness campaigns in colleges and schools. “One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman or that community alone. It’s the struggle of the people of this country and together we can abolish this.”

This article was published by the Inter Press Service news agency. You can read it here

Indian government scheme to arrest declining Parsi numbers

“Isn’t it time you broke up with your mom?” goes the tagline on an ad featuring a man with his aged mother. Another says, “Be responsible. Don’t use a condom tonight’’. A third, featuring a woman in a ballerina pose, asks: “Who will be snooty about being superior if you don’t have kids?”

The target of this campaign is the Indian Parsi community, whose population is flatlining but it doesn’t seem to do much about it. The media blitz is expected to shake the Parsis out of procreative somnolence. The last census data makes a compelling case for such an intervention – from 114,000 Parsis in 1941, their headcount dropped to 69,000 in 2001, a fall of 39% on an already-small base.

Provocative and cheeky, these ads, all of them published in Parsi publications, are part of the Indian government’s Jiyo Parsi programme, an attempt to shore up the shrinking numbers. The idea was born when, after seven years of research in collaboration with leading Indian institutes, the National Commission of Minorities identified late or no marriage, decline in fertility, and marriage outside the community as the main drivers behind this dwindling demographic. One out of every five men, and one out of 10 women over 50 are unmarried.

“The community has become, sad to say, demographically abnormal, and Jiyo Parsi is trying to address that”, says Dr Shernaz Cama, honorary director of the UNESCO-funded Parzor Project, which is implementing the scheme.

“Parsis have a Total Fertility Rate of 0.88, while a community needs a TFR of 2.1 to survive. Only one in nine families have a child below the age of 10’’. (TFR is the average number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to live to the end of her childbearing years and bear children according to age-specific fertility rates)

The five-year-programme is backed by a Rs. 10 crore government grant, and has a two-pronged strategy – advocacy and medical assistance.

The first includes promoting early marriage and multiple children. Under the second, free fertility treatments are offered to couples whose annual income is below Rs 10 lakhs. The campaign has found eager takers, with over 20 couples availing of treatments like In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF)and Intra-Uterine Insemination (IUI) over the last year.

Equally, the ad campaign has angered many Parsis, who find the ads regressive and sexist. Parizad Mehta, a Mumbai-based bank employee, who has two daughters, says the campaign places the entire onus of procreation on women.

“I welcome the initiative because something needs to be done about our numbers. But why should women carry the burden? At 22-23 years, girls are still finding themselves. How can you expect them to have the maturity to find the right partner? They still have their dreams and ambitions. Why should they have to set those aside because the community needs numbers?”

“They are putting out the message that a women’s life is not complete without marriage and motherhood, and that is appalling”, adds Simin Merchant, a doctoral student from the University of Oxford, whose research is focused on the Parsis of colonial India.

“The message it is sending out about women and couples who marry late – words like `you don’t want parents who look like grandparents’ – breed paranoia. Parsis are known for pioneering ideals of progressiveness and modernity, and this campaign is anything but’’.

Those behind the program say rapid decline is a hard fact and it is time to get aggressive about addressing it. “The fact is that there is a thing called biology and the world over there is growing realization of the need to impart a more traditional feminism”, says Dr Cama.

“It’s a fact that at 25, women have biologically aged – your eggs are not in the condition they were at 22. There is a need to get back a healthy work-life balance. What is the harm in a girl getting married and later continuing her career? Learn from the mistakes we have made in the past’’.

The campaign aside, many within the community are questioning the very approach of the programme as it discriminates against Parsi women with non-Parsi spouses. For example, they cannot avail of the medical benefits offered by the community, while Parsi men who have married outside the faith can.

“How can the purpose of stemming the decline be achieved when Parsi women who have married outside the community – and their children – are not considered Parsi (whereas the same measure is not applied to Parsi men)”, questions Jehangir Patel, editor of Parsiana, a monthly community newsmagazine and a respected liberal voice. “If women are to be a part of any campaign to benefit the community, how can we treat them as second-class citizens? Why are you denying them the right to marry who they want? Parsis were pioneers of women’s education and industry, and today we have regressed.”

Even conservatives like Mehta agree that this is discriminatory. “On the one hand you say men and women are equal. And then you say that women cannot choose their partners and be accepted within the community’’.

Patel goes on to add, ”All genetic studies show that Parsi migration was male-dominated. The mitochondrial (maternal line) DNA carried in Parsi women here in India is different from that found among those in Iran. Clearly there is a large mixture of Gujarati genes, so its not as if the racial purity this program is trying to hold on to still exists. It’s morally and ethically wrong to ban women’’.

Dr Cama defends the decision saying that she is bound by the parameters set under the government’s Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, which is patriarchal and do not grant rights to children born of a union between a Parsi woman and a non-Parsi man.

“Why don’t Parsi women take up the issue?” she asks. “It is not for Jiyo Parsi to do so. The fact is that our surveys have shown that none of the girls born to a Parsi mother and non-Parsi father who had the Navjote (formal induction into Zoroastrianism), married a Parsi. That threatens Zoroastrian culture’’.

Merchant argues the program would be better off adopting a more inclusive approach; the current one according to her smacks of ‘xenophobia’. She says it is time the community accepts that the demographic decline is terminal, and points to various studies that establish this.

“What they are trying to create is the pure Parsi, which will no longer exist”, says Merchant. “You cannot have programs in this day and age to breed race. It is fundamentally wrong. It is also isolates those from the community who have married outside. All it needed was a gesture to welcome thousands of children born of Parsi & non-Parsi unions to add to the community. There are thousands of ways to make Parsis jiyo and this is not one of them

This article was published in the Express Tribune here