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