A brief run-through of the history of manual scavenging to show the inseparability of caste and manual scavenging
4 minutes read
Uncles who scoff about reservations, and aunties who give water to the waste and sanitation worker in a “different” glass, claim to be “modern”! One often hears these modern people justifying the need for manual scavenging, saying “If they don’t do it who will?” Little do they know that their modern mindset comes from generations of thought breeding, leaving the marginalised with cultural baggage that comes at the great cost of trauma – and also unjustly dealing with night soil in the age of technology.
Cultural baggage comes with a defunct sense of morality… and India is rigidly serious about traditions. While modernity has blurred these rigid lines, it hasn’t completely erased them. Etched in stones, texts, and the psyches is the caste system that has outlived civilisations, invaders, and imperialists, all the same. And this baggage seeps into the very socio-cultural fabric making it difficult to remove the stains. So, how do we make space for change? How do we start with a clean, if not blank, slate? Perhaps, by respecting those who maintain the construct of cleanliness in the society – manual scavengers.
Caste and manual scavenging cannot be viewed separately, and to fully understand the tandem, and hopefully dismantle it, we need to dig through the layers of dust to see where it really began.
Rig Veda, one of the oldest religious scriptures in the world, declares the four duty bound-classes – Brahman (scholars), Ksatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Sudras (labourers) – resulting in the creation of a Brahmanical hegemony. Eventually branching out into hundreds sub-groups, each had a particular occupation imposed on them. This unfortunately led to the oppression and exploitation of the “outcastes”, considered “untouchable” as they handled waste. Naradiya Samhita is another text which is often cited to show the prevalence of this practice since ancient times, where it was called a duty out of the fifteen prescribed to slaves. The Vajasaneyi Samhita enlists “chandalas” as slaves engaged in the disposal of human excreta.
Archeological findings from sites of the Indus Valley, and Harappan civilisations also reveal toilets with water seals, connected to sewer vents and underground drainage systems. This is said to have continued through the Buddhist and Mauryan period, where foragers and sweepers under the Nagarak cleaned the city and handled the night soil.
The Mughal Empire too is said to have tiny outlets used as toilets. Women due to the purdah system are said to have required enclosed toilets requiring scavenging. In fact, Jahangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 km away from Delhi for 100 families in 1556. It is speculated that detainees of war were forced to work as manual scavengers during this era. Such sewage frameworks are still intact in historical sites such as the Red Fort in Delhi, the royal residences of Rajasthan, in Hampi, Karnataka and in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
The British further systemised this practice, opening up posts for manual scavenging. With most British organisations furnished with dry toilets, scavengers were needed in surplus to clean railroads, cantonments, courts etc., ignoring their edifications about equity as these social divisions benefited their cause.
And here we are, more than 70 years after our independence with this corrupt and inhumane practice still thriving across the country. They are still carried out by the people called “Bhangi” (Sanskrit for “broken” and Hindi for “trash”) in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, Phakis in Andhra Pradesh, Balmiki in Haryana, and Sikkaliars in Tamil Nadu.
Although modern India sticks with politically correct terms like Scheduled Castes or “Dalits” (meaning “oppressed” minus the negativity), it does nothing to get them out their legacy of untouchability and social stagnation.
Concepts of “purity” and “pollution” are often decisive in the caste and class tensions, where the privileged associate themselves with the former, indifferent to the plight of those who inherit the latter. In this social ladder of caste, the higher the one goes, the purer he/she is and the lower he/she is, his/her degrees of untouchability increase. Tracing it all back, the entanglement is deep seated in the social psyche despite being a product of the economic divisions in the society. Add the “impurity” of women to the equation, as voila – oppression seeps through the intersections.
How do we break this legacy? That’s a question for another article. However, it isn’t enough to “not-care-about-the-caste-system”. Proclaiming to do so shows one’s privilege to remain unaffected by this very much present evil. Nor is it enough to ask scavengers to simply stop scavenging as their legacy traps them in this single way to earn money. A combination of good schemes, implementation of the same, and education would take us a step further.
But firstly, we should stop accepting our respective inheritances.
- Frontline: Exposing an abhorrent practice, 2006
- TERI India: Manual Scavenging in India, 2019
- Long Reads: A Brief History of Class and Waste in India, 2008
- IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science (IOSR-JHSS) Volume 22, Issue 7, Ver. 8: Manual Scavenging: The Poignant Situation of Obscured Heroes, 2017
- ILI Law Review, Summer Issue: Manual Scavenging: A case of denied rights, 2016