The women who refuse to do India’s dirtiest job

Every morning I would take a broom and tin plate to the homes of the upper caste thakurs to pick up their faeces. I would collect the waste in a cane basket and later throw it in a dumping ground outside the village.”

As you watch a confident Ranikumari Khokar educate a group of boys and girls on how to file a police case, it is hard to imagine that this 21-year-old spent most of her adolescence working as a scavenger.

Today she is a “barefoot lawyer”, an initiative started by Jan Sahas, an NGO that has been campaigning against the practice of manual scavenging for 12 years. Since the launch of the programme in 2014, 800 girls and young women have been trained in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

A caste-based role, manual scavenging condemns mostly women to clean excreta from dry latrines with their hands and carry it on their heads to dumps. Men from the community clean open gutters and sewerage lines, often with no protective gear.

Derogatorily called bhangis, which means “broken identity,” most of the scavengers are dalits, ranked lowest in the caste system and expected to carry out tasks regarded as beneath the dignity of those higher up in the hierarchy.

“We were looked down upon by the villagers,” recalls Ranikumari. “They would never walk with us. At the village well, we were made to wait at a distance until everyone else had filled up.”

Even worse was the discrimination in school. “The teachers would call us bhangans [children ofbhangis] and expect us to clean the toilets and the classrooms. We sat apart from everyone else and were never given a chance to participate in school functions,” adds Ranikumari.

Caste-based discrimination or untouchability was banned in India in 1955 and down the decades several policy measures have been announced to end the inhumane custom of manual scavenging. Article 17 of the country’s constitution clearly abolishes the practice, while the 1993 Dry Toilets Prohibition Act forbids the employment of manual scavengers.

But none of these policies have been effective because manual scavenging was categorised as a health and sanitation issue, a responsibility implemented by state governments. Many states like Delhi and Rajasthan did not even bring the policy into force, and those states that did showed little will to enforce it on the ground. People remained unaware they had the right to refuse this role. The few who dared to came under intense social pressure, and received no support from local government officials. They risked violence and eviction.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network, which works towards ending caste-based discrimination, estimates that there are about 1.3 million manual scavengers in India, most of them women. These women are victims twice over: looked down upon by the upper castes and discriminated against within their homes.

“People from my village would walk far away from us as if we gave out a smell they could not bear,” says Mayu, a resident of Sava village, Rajasthan. “We were made to draw water from a well in which dead animals and birds were found and if anyone gave us any food, it would be thrown in our direction. Even my husband would tell me to bathe many times because I was cleaning other peoples’ shit although he had no problem eating the rotis I brought home.”

It was these attitudes that Jan Sahas had to battle when it started its campaign in 2003.

“They were socialised to believe that they have to be low caste,” says Aashif Shaikh, the founder of Jan Sahas. “They would tell us ‘this work has been given to us by god and we are at an advantage as we get food’. The reality was that they were being treated worse than animals.” Because they were rarely paid in cash, they were dependent on the upper castes for the basics – food, clothing and shelter.

Jan Sahas started working in two villages in Rajasthan. It would take nearly two years before they were able to convince the community to put down their brooms. The gamechangers were the children, especially girls.

“The girls were determined to end the practice,” says Shaikh. “They were deeply unhappy about the discrimination they faced in schools so we would make them speak at our meetings.”

But there was fierce resistance from the upper castes; some Dalit homes were even burned down. The local police refused to act and it was only after district level officials intervened that action was taken.

Since 2003, Jan Sahas claims to have liberated more than 21,000 women in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan. These women have become ambassadors for the movement and it was their countrywide agitation in 2013 that led to the Indian parliament enacting a new, stronger law against manual scavenging.

Those who employ manual scavengers face a one-year prison term and a fine of 50,000 rupees (over £500). For repeated violations, the prison term is two years and a fine of 100,000 rupees (£1,000).

Stronger penalties apart, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 makes it mandatory to rehabilitate rescued manual scavengers. They now get 40,000 rupees (over £400) as compensation from the government and get trained for alternative employment.

Many women now work in government-funded construction projects and small factories. Others have enrolled in community initiatives started by NGOs that offer training in skills like tailoring and embroidery.

Changing minds, however, remains a challenge as caste-based discrimination is still deeply entrenched in Indian society.

“You can change your religion in India but you cannot change your caste,” says Shaikh. “You hear of people converting to another religion but their caste remains the same, and this is true for even Muslims and Sikhs although neither religion has the caste system. Even politics runs on the basis of caste.”

The way forward, activists believe, is to educate the younger generation, who are open to change. The barefoot lawyers initiative, which trains men and women from all communities, is a step in that direction.

“I go to different villages and educate the youth about laws relating to caste discrimination, sexual assault and rape,” says Ranikumari. “I even speak to school authorities if I hear complaints of discrimination. As a child I could not speak up for myself but now I have a voice.”

This article was published in The Guardian

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