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Madhya Pradesh's manual scavengers caste in a trap

Dewas, Fri, 23 Jan 2009 WFS
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Everybody knows that manual scavenging has been banned in India. But that has not made much of a difference to many Hindu women from the Valmiki community and their Muslim counterparts from the Haila community in Madhya Pradesh (MP), who are still compelled to clean dry latrines for a living.

Known as manual scavengers, these women manually remove human excreta from dry latrines - toilets with not more than a small cubicle in which a hole in the ground opens on to a receptacle in a partitioned off space. Using a broom and tin plate they crawl into the compartment to scrape up the excreta and then empty the waste into a basket that they carry on their heads or at their hips to a sanitary dump located some distance away. This despite the fact that The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was enacted fifteen years ago. The Act punishes those who employ scavengers and construct dry (non-flush) latrines, with prison terms of up to one year and a fine of Rs 2,000 (US$1=Rs 48.6).

The Valmikis and Hailas are deemed the lowliest of the low. The Valmikis, who are a Scheduled Caste (SC), are looked down upon by other SCs communities, too. As for the Hailas, although they fall in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category, their lot is the worst. Victims of extreme exploitation, deprivation and marginalisation, local custom still forbids the Hailas from using public facilities like a teashop and their children are harassed even if they are granted admission in a school.

The government offers financial assistance to those among these communities who break away and take up other jobs. The MP Scheduled Caste Finance Corporation gives loans at a subsidised rate, which can be returned in easy installments. They can start any alternative work after the quit manual scavenging. What is surprising though is that this benefit is sanctioned only for men, although it is the women who largely dominate this demeaning 'profession' - in MP, 90 per cent of those who still engage in scavenging are women. The loan probably benefits the men folk more because the money is given for agriculture and allied services or trade, which are largely considered to be male-dominated jobs.

The story of Sumitra Bai, 52, of Barotha village in Dewas district, is emblematic of the challenges that face those who try to leave this ugly legacy behind. A Valmiki, Sumitra Bai was encouraged by her children to give up manual scavenging after decades of cleaning lavatories. It wasn't an easy step for her considering that she was a widow whose only source of livelihood was through such work. To complicate matters, she was regarded by some in the village of having challenged an age-old tradition, a tradition, which rules that a new bride should take over the work of manual scavenging from her mother-in-law. Despite the hostility she faced, Sumitra Bai took a loan of Rs 20,000 from a cooperative bank to open a cloth shop in her village. Excited at the prospect of a better future, Sumitra burnt her scavenger's basket to symbolise the end to a degrading past.

What Sumitra Bai and the social workers who had rallied round her had failed to realise was the full strength of the opposition against such a move within the community in which she lived. Six months after she had set up shop, pricing her goods - saris, blouses and petticoats - according to the purchasing power of the neighbourhood, she still had not sold a single item. The reason was not far to seek. The villagers - both from the upper castes and the Dalit communities - had decided to punish her for daring to step beyond her caste by boycotting her goods.

"The influential people of the village issued a diktat against me and therefore no one bought anything from my shop. My shop had saris, with prices ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 300. The village people could have easily afforded them. There are about 50 houses belonging to the Valmiki community in my village. But the fact that not a single piece of cloth was sold proves that not only members of the upper castes and the gentry, but even those in the Valmiki community considered me guilty," says a heartbroken Sumitra.

That was not all. Angry at her supposed arrogance, local shopkeepers even stopped selling her the items she needed for everyday use. With no option left, Sumitra Bai returned to manual scavenging after returning her stock of unsold goods at a loss of 20 per cent. "I am a mother and I could not leave my children, aged 15 and 17, alone to face the wrath of the villagers." On hearing her tale, the bank officials allowed her to return the installments of the loan she had taken at her convenience.

The young Muslim brides of the Haila community can understand Sumitra's plight, for they, too, have had similar experiences. In Tarana village in Ujjain district, young women recount how their husbands had forced them to become manual scavengers much against their wishes. Despite Islam professing equality, the Muslim Haila community is subjected to class discrimination and untouchability, but those within it have no other option but to carry on as scavengers since it is their only means of livelihood. Like Sumitra Bai, they end up being financially dependent on the very landlords from whose houses they carry human waste.

Given this scenario, the plight of the women and children from these communities is pitiable. According to statistics available, a total of 2,274 persons in the rural and urban areas of Madhya Pradesh continue to be engaged in carrying excreta. It is interesting to note though that only 112 of this number are male. In Dewas district, for instance, among 129 manual scavengers, only two are men.

Tarana's Kaneez Bi narrates one incident when a lady came to her house and abused her for not coming to work, "You sweepers have started crossing all limits. The foul smell from the latrine is making life unbearable for us and you people are just relaxing." Such humiliation is a common enough experience for women from both the Valmiki and Haila communities, who are paid just Rs 50 a month for the humiliation they have to suffer on a daily basis.

Social activists in the region are working hard to change this reality but it is a tough battle. As Meeraj, 24, of Tarana village pointed out, the government may want them to give up scavenging, but officials threaten to stop the scholarship if they actually do so. The central government's welfare scheme offering an educational scholarship of Rs 750 per child per year to families that are engaged in manual scavenging has not been successful. The administration stops giving the money as soon as the family leaves manual scavenging citing that they no longer come under the category of those that are engaged in an unclean occupation.

It is in the interests of the elite in these regions that old social hierarchies remain undisturbed.

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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