It is disgraceful that the Elimination of Manual Scavenging Practices Bill has not been able to see the light of the day. There has been no concern shown by any political party. India's biggest apartheid is hidden and ignored by the political class cutting across the party lines and this 'don't care attitude' is visible with those who claim to work for the rights of Dalits and marginalized. There are no discussions on the issue in any of these identity forums. That is a tragedy of how we treat the most important issue of our time in utter contempt and neglect.
Our media would not cover the incident, as the journalists have no courage to see the ugly reality of our caste system and criminal society, which feels that it is the job of these 'women' to clean it. Long ago, an international channel had to postpone the shooting of this hidden apartheid of India as they were denied visa by the government.
International news agencies have been eager to understand as what will happen when the Bill comes for discussion in Parliament. Unfortunately, not much was discussed in the Indian media except for a few news items when the Supreme Court took note of it and felt agonized as why the Parliament has not yet passed the bill. Is it because Balmikis or manual scavengers are not a powerful 'vote-bank' for any political party? Will the rights and wrongs always be decided on the basis of number of people and their 'political' strength or on the basis of our horrible human right records in that front?
Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when a French TV channel showed interest to visit us and see some of the changes that we have been able to make in district Fatehpur. We were clear that merely showing the pathetic side won't work all the time. If we claim to have been working for years on the issue then it is time to show what alternatives we have been able to build for people.
The Garima Kendra, run by Social Development Foundation in the heart of Fatehpur city is in activation for the past three years and given new hope to young girls of Balmiki community. Many of them are learning computers and sewing while others are learning Zari work. So, our aim was to give a glimpse of how manual scavenging practices are still happening and how does the society perceive this and what could be the alternatives. It is the failure of us as a civil society to provide alternative, as depending on the government at all times will not get us anywhere.
The TV crew arrived in the morning and we all were on the mission to capture a glimpse of the work in a village Korba in Tehsil Bindaki. The village has a population of about two thousand five hundred. Situated 23 kilometers away from the district headquarter; the village has Muslims as the dominant community with other Dalit communities living on margin.
Sunita has already been out for her daily 'farming'. Here most of the families use the term 'Kisani' for the manual scavenging work. A mother of 5 children, Sunita has pain her eyes as none has ever given a thought of her issues. She too is a woman of independent India but how many of the 'Indian' women have ever thought of her as her counterpart. She has a lot of problems with the work. She feels anguished and down, yet, there is no 'option' for her. Who will feed her children, is the question? What will be the future of her children?
"I am living this life for 25 years. It is death at every moment." This is the gift of her mother in law who wanted to preserve the family tradition. The Muslim occupants there are not in great shape, yet, they feel that it is the 'duty' of Sunita and others like her to do the work.
"Who will do this work, if she does not do it", said a family woman defending her right to keep the toilet."Let the government provide us money and we will make it".
"But if the government does not give you money then what would you do?" we asked.
"We will continue to get this work done by these people?"
"But don't you think, this is a bad work, an inhuman practice to clean the shit of others?"
"Yes, it is bad. Then why don't you clean your latrine yourself?"
And the woman laughs sheepishly.
"How can we do it?" And then the arrogant answer is "we pay them money in lieu of the work. They are not doing it free of cost. If we do not pay them, they will die of hunger. It is a work for which they are being paid."
And this is the story of so many other places. Unfortunately they have the same arguments and behavior when exposed in public. The crowd gathers everywhere. Young boys gather and pass comments on the crew. Of course, not very harmful but realizing that they would be in trouble, they question us as why are we doing it. "We want the government to make new toilets for you so that you live a better life", I tell one of them. "Ok, please tell the government to do it fast." So, people want better facilities for themselves but not for a moment they feel the pain of another person. That the particular work is meant for a particular community is the most gruesome reality of our time.
And in this humiliating practice of caste discrimination and untouchability, we have found Muslim localities are no less responsible than others. Here Muslim elite also behave like caste Hindus. The economic condition of these Muslim families is not very great, yet, the mind of a caste Hindu exists inside them when they treat the Balmiki women in utter contempt. There is no apology or anguish if you find a 15-year-old girl engaged in this inhuman practice. And many of them have been doing it for years. The government has not reached them. The civil society is the upper caste monster in India. India is in a crisis and need a bigger surgery.
Two diverse values, yet, when the issue of untouchability comes, Muslims too treat the Dalits as untouchables, though as a religion Islam does not sanctify any kind of discrimination based on caste and untouchability; yet it is frequent. In fact, manual scavenging is prevalent in the areas with larger Muslim population as their economic condition is difficult but social taboos force women to remain inside. With their inability to build up flushed latrines, they are compelled to get these lowly paid manual scavengers.The compensation for cleaning human excreta with hand is about Rs 20/- per month per family. In such a harrowing situation where keeping a 'toilet' has become 'honor' but keeping women who clean your shit is a proud position, how can we think that there could be any saner debate on the issue of manual scavenging?
People don't even think that this work needs to be abolished and that these fateful women are doing a thing, which doesn't exist anywhere in the civilized world. Government of India has failed to eradicate it as they do not know what alternative could be given to the people and most of the governments' funds are embezzled in bureaucratic issues. The government actually can provide funds but that does not come from heart. It tackles the issue economically and not as a social concern.
Manual scavenging is an issue related to not only our divisive and discriminatory caste system but also violates the basic principles of human dignity and human rights. The problem is that the people from manual scavenging community face discrimination daily and cannot opt for any profession of their choice as caste based prejudices are very high. In many places, in the government schools, when the former manual scavengers who had left their 'traditional' occupation were given a job as cook, the students refused to eat food cooked by them. The caste Hindus withdrew their children from the school.
Fatehpur has seen lot of caste violence in the past. The district is predominantly situated on the banks of Yamuna between Kanpur and Allahabad. The conditions remain difficult and hence when Dheeraj Kumar and his team started working for the rights of the Community, it changed the perception as the voices were from within the community. The young got motivated when Social Development Foundation started a Garima Kendra exclusively for women who left manual scavenging and their children. Of course, it also engaged the most impoverish Muslim women working on Zardosi. So the Zardosi women, working for their daily bread, sat with Dalit women giving rise to a new movement. There are initial hitch ups, as caste discrimination has not left Muslims too despite all claims of equality in Islam.
Muslim women, who knew Zari work, has started coming to our center and starting working. The Dalit women who left their manual scavenging work has also started coming and learning the Zari work. Many of them are learning sewing too. Some girls are learning computer skills also.
The impact is very high. The demand for learning sewing and zari work is growing in Fatehpur. The Garima Kendra i.e. 'Dignity Centre' has been supported by us. In the past three years, over 300 women have left manual scavenging work in 10 Gram Sabhas. Many of them have now linked themselves with dignity movement and learning sewing and Zari work.
Our attempt is to reach their villages so that they do not need to travel far away from their homes. More than 20 girls from the community have learnt computer in last one year. 10 women, who had left manual scavenging and have been coming from faraway places, have completely learnt sewing and can do their own work. Some of them are also getting work from the market. The women who are engaged in Zardosi work too are now gaining a new confidence. The process for formation of a union is on though it is difficult because of various religious circumstances, yet, daily 60 women come to learn and work at the center, which is remarkable. In the two shifts, Garima Kendra actually gave them the opportunity to look inwards and fight for their right. They are organizing and we are hopeful that a union of the Zardosi workers would be formed for their rights.
The Garima Kendra has given hope to both Muslim women, who are working for their livelihood and preserving our art of Zari, and the Dalit women who were engaged in manual scavenging and have left their work looking for dignified alternatives. Their only wish is that if such support remains continuous for at least five years, they would grow in a much better way. It is a great achievement. Many have designed Zari work. They may not be experts but they are designing cloths. My wish is to have an exhibition of the work being done by them at certain point of time.
There is lesson for all of us that positive work will pave the way. It does not mean that we should not fight for our rights from the government and authorities but we cannot totally depend on the government. Let us have our own initiatives so that the discriminatory practice of untouchability and caste becomes history. It may be a tall claim but then we cannot really struggle against anything which is 'impossible'. The battle for a better alternative human life has just begun.