The Handlers of India’s Human Waste
September 27, 2018
Tens of thousands of Dalits still work as manual scavengers in India – unclogging sewers, emptying septic tanks, and more. They work with no protective gear, no holidays, irregular wages, and the constant threat of disease and death. All this along with deep social stigma – while the government speaks of a Swachh Bharat and of ‘open defecation free' villages. These are PARI’s stories about citizens stained by the stigma of 'safai':
Minimum protective gear, maximum risk, no holidays, no pay, and ever-lurking disease and death. That’s the fate of safai karmacharis in Pavagada in Karnataka’s Tumkur district.
After a lifetime of dehumanising labour, caste oppression and family tragedy, 90-year-old Bhateri Devi – a Mumbaikar from Rohtak – is still not bitter, and remains independent and quite cheerful.
When he was 10, Arjun Singh's father Rajeshwar died while cleaning a sewer in Delhi. At 14, the schoolboy sells snacks to support himself and his mother, and dreams of becoming a bank manager and a chef.
Uttarakhand’s Gunji village is home to 194 families who still relieve themselves behind hedges in the biting cold of the mountains – and yet, the Swachh Bharat Mission claims the region is free of open defecation.
Mani has spent nearly 30 years cleaning choked sewers, while enduring the stigma of his work and caste. And each time he dives bare-bodied into the sludge and human waste, he wonders if he will come out alive.
K. Nagamma, the wife of a sanitation worker who died in a septic tank, and her daughters Shyla and Anandhi, recount their struggles against a system that confines them – quite literally – to the gutters.
In November 2016, Chandan Daloi died while cleaning a septic tank at a Delhi mall. ‘Why is only our caste employed for cleaning the sewers, and why are people still dying inside them’, asks his wife, Putul.
This panel of P. Sainath’s curated, online photo exhibition, depicting rural women’s labour, shows a ‘night soil’ worker who is given a roti every day for cleaning up one household’s excreta.
This Act, as compared to an earlier law related to manual scavengers, emphasises restoring the workers’ dignity and rights, and provides for rehabilitation.
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