Some of India’s “Untouchable” Citizens Continue To Be Relegated Into Disposal Of Human Waste

Submitted By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

manual-scavengingWe have discussed the sad plight of the low castes of Indian society and their removal from the benefits of India’s emergence in the world. In particular is the notion of certain human beings are considered to be untouchable. Examples include being last to be rescued during floods (HERE), a case of doctors refusing to treat an untouchable woman in labor resulting in she and her child dying (HERE) Children suffering horrific acts of violence (HERE) Child Rapes (HERE) and others.

Deutsche Welle recently published an interview with Meenakshi Granguly, the South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch who co-authored a study titled “Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India.” The study focused on “Manual scavenging” – the cleaning of human waste from open roads and dry pit latrines by communities considered low-caste – [that] is still being practiced by hundreds of thousands of people in India” The report was released August 25th. It is one of sorrow and deep social injustice.

India flagIn Indian culture the Dalit caste, known as “Untouchables”, occupy approximately 16% of the population. Despite government efforts such as a constitution that prohibits the notion of untouchability or caste discrimination, the practice often remains, notably in rural areas. New laws have further strengthened the official promise at least. But within the Dalit caste a sub-caste exists that usually comprises those who scavenge.

According to Meenakshi, local authorities however are often complicit in discrimination of this caste and she has attempted to lobby New Delhi to take action. In her interview she provides a perspective into caste discrimination commenting:

“The community that is covered in our report is a sub-caste among Dalits who work as manual scavengers. They manually dispose of human excrement and perform other unsanitary tasks – practices that are now forbidden by law. Women usually clean dry toilets, men and women clean excrement from open defecation sites, gutters, and drains, and men are called upon to do the more physically demanding work of cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

This community faces social exclusion irrespective of their religion, and is traditionally limited to livelihoods viewed as deplorable. This sub-caste faces discrimination even among Dalits.”

She further added that the disconnect between the national government and local implementation continues:

“As is often the case in India, strong, rights-friendly laws are enacted, but implementation at the community level remains flawed. The Indian constitution abolished “untouchability.” There are specific laws against caste-based discrimination such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

A 1993 law criminalized employment of manual scavengers to clean dry latrines. In 2013, a new law was enacted to forbid all forms of manual scavenging, beyond just dry latrines and recommends assistance to the communities engaged in the practice. In March 2014, the Supreme Court also directed that the state provide assistance to the community.

And yet, as we find in our report, there remain serious gaps in implementation. In fact, village councils and municipalities often perpetuate the practice, restricting the manual scavenging community to these cleaning tasks. We have documented cases where educated members of the community, who are eligible for other employment, were still only assigned to these jobs.”

One answer to rescuing the sub-caste from the bondage of this type of work would come from modern waste management services where septic, water and sewer systems could put an end to the practice:

“The government has committed to modernize the sanitation systems and ensure the right to health. To date, however, emphasis has been placed upon toilets without ensuring that modern waste management systems are in place. As a result, excrement is still cleaned manually from open drains, sewers, and septic tanks.

Any initiatives to modernize sanitation must address the discrimination suffered by the community that traditionally practiced manual scavenging. Efforts by civil society, including the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Dignity Campaign), have focused on “liberating” women from the practice.

They encourage women to burn their baskets and stop this work. In several cases, when they stop, there are threats from dominant caste groups who want their toilets cleaned. Not only do local authorities fail to provide support, in several parts of India, it is the village council that perpetuates the practice, threatening eviction, withheld wages or denial of access to land to graze farm animals when people refuse to continue manual scavenging work.

However, many who have been able to leave manual scavenging said that eventually, when they refused caste-based excrement cleaning, in most such places, sanitary toilets were constructed”

Creating laws and constitutional protection is often not enough to guarantee equality in a society having great divides between social classes, especially when some are faced with extreme poverty and provided with no voice as to their needs.

One often overlooked aspect of the modern world is that having proper infrastructure and a healthy population can be just as liberating as legal guarantees.

By Darren Smith


Deutsche Welle

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

18 thoughts on “Some of India’s “Untouchable” Citizens Continue To Be Relegated Into Disposal Of Human Waste”

  1. Nick: there was a section off the beaten path of Ferguson MO when I was there last week called Dog Patch. If you look on a map it is the shanty housing near Norwood Country Club on the Ferguson side of the RR tracks. Or thereabouts.

  2. We have a class of Americans who are relegated to such work here in New Orleans where I am staying. They are called divorce lawyers. Why they delve into that itShay is beyond the Pale.

  3. Darren, Thanks for spotlighting this problem. I’m not sure how we can help to resolve this problem, yet, but the more people who are reminded of this problem, the more minds will consider a way to remedy it.

  4. Darren – I was doing fine supporting you in your outrage until I saw the words “social justice.” It is not ours to interfere in the problems of India unless it affects us. We don’t tell the UK to get rid of their Royal Family..

  5. Karen, There was an unincorporated section in Kansas City dubbed Dog Patch. It was ostensibly governed by Jackson County. This was an eye opener for me as a young, liberal, juvenile probation officer in 1976. The place was like the barrios I would see a decade later when I went to Medellin to adopt our son. Shacks, put together w/ spit and glue. It was all white folk. Most had come from the Ozarks looking for work. I got a kid assigned to me for stealing 8 track tape decks form cars. Old enough to remember? Anyway, As I drove the dirt road into Dog Patch I was astounded. I had cases in the black shitty neighborhoods but they were nothing like this. I met the kid and his mother and took the info I needed. I saw rotting food in the kitchen and no fridge. As soon as I left I went to a used appliance store, bought a fridge, and went back to my office to see if someone had a pickup to deliver it. My supervisor was a wise Jew from Brooklyn. He put his arm around me, gave me kudos for my compassion and said, “Nick, there’s no electricity in Dog Patch.”

  6. This is so tragic. It is very hard to change traditions lasting thousands of years.

    Modern sanitation is the first step. It’s unbelievable that India, with all the foreign investment that has poured in, still has a complete lack of sanitation.

  7. The untouchables in India, the one two punch:

    1. In what could be the country’s biggest defence programme over the next decades, India signed an initial agreement with Russia to jointly develop and produce a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft.

    2. The Indian tech worker H-1B visa scam

    When news about an American company, Cognizant hiring Americans gets widespread coverage in India, there’s clearly something unusual going on.

    So why would Indian newspapers, TV stations and financial websites be interested — arguably more interested than most US media — in the announcement by
    New Jersey-based IT firm Cognizant Technology Solutions that it will create 10,000 new American jobs?
    The short answer is that most of Cognizant’s 166,400 staff are based in India. Only 29,000 work in the US, mostly at the firm’s headquarters in Teaneck, NJ.

  8. Haz, Yes. And the 2 US healthcare workers who risked their lives contracting Ebola were Christians missionaries. We get a lot of Christian bashing here, not as much as before. Are there any Muslim missionaries. Hell, are there even any Muslim hospitals??

  9. This topic (thank you, Darren) has given me a few minutes to reflect again on the selfless good work done by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta among the lowest of castes in India. And rescuing babies left to die on trash heaps in Calcutta.

    “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

  10. I agree with Justice Holmes with an added proviso. This kind of sad existence happens in our cities with the homeless to some degree. So very sad.

  11. If those tasks must be done by someone, they should be reserved for convicted international war criminals. Maybe the war criminals could simultaneously benefit from Indian guru teachings about compassion for others. Since it would probably require a steady stream of war criminals, the world must be much more diligent about indicting and prosecuting war criminals. There are plenty of them out there.

  12. We have a type of Dalit living among us in urban areas. I saw them for years, through the window of my workplace on the fringe of a ghetto in a city. Scavengers. The people who are (usually) homeless, and who scavenge for metal junk. The junk is loaded into their pilfered shopping carts and pushed, sometimes for many miles, to scrap yards where it can be exchanged for a few dollars in cash. Some arrive at their station in life through drug use, or mental disease, or having a criminal record. And some arrive by birth, through lack of a stable home, or through the diminished IQ that comes with fetal drug and fetal alcohol syndromes.

    It is a caste from which the only escape seems to be death or imprisonment. “Let’s hire some homeless guys” is an employment strategy not heard where nearly every job requires the ability to read, to write, to follow directions that often require technical skills. Or the means to arrive on time at the jobsite miles away every morning. Or the means to overcome addiction and mental illness.

  13. I apologize………….. I used to think my job was the shi-ttiest!

  14. One of the problems here has to do with Western perceptions about India. In the U.S., Canada, the U.K., etc. (or Japan, for that matter!), the rural world represents a small percentage of the population. Not so in India. India is still a nation of villages, and mostly rural or (in the Western sense) “small town”. Therefore, Caste System related problems are still remarkably wide-spread. Regardless of the technical laws, the Caste System still effects hundreds of millions, not hundreds of thousands.

  15. Reminds me of the Titanic story where the elite never stopped looking down on the lower classes below them in the belly of their common problem:

    Two different [steering] systems were in operation at the time, Rudder Orders (used for steam ships) and Tiller Orders (used for sailing ships).

    Crucially, Mrs Patten said, the two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another, so a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.”

    She said when the helmsman, who had been trained in sail, received the direction, he turned the vessel [to the right] towards the iceberg with tragic results.

    Mrs Patten has worked the story of the catastrophe into her latest novel, Good As Gold.

    (Titanic Mistakes Using The W Compass).

    “How could God let us die with these low-class vermin” as they sank below the cold waters of death.

    Those billions in the third-world section of non-third-world countries as well as those in real third-world countries are on the same boat as the rest of us.

    But in a different section of our mind as we surge ahead with two different steering systems on the one ship M/V Civilization.

  16. I have never understood the attitude of some Westerners that India is the place to discover inner peace or some spiritual guidance to a “better world” . This kind of report is neither new nor unexpected. There have been many stories about the oppression and segregation of the poor in India that present such a stark picture of a society stratified by caste, gender and money that I often wonder if some of our American CEOs have take courses in how a society should be run from an Indian master.

    The discussion of the importance of infrastructure is most timely in that it highlights how infrastructure is one of the keys to a fair and healthy society. Another lesson our “leaders” seem to have forgotten or have been paid to ignore by those who want to harvest all the public money for their own benefit while our roads and bridges, water systems and schools crumble.

    We send India millions for weapons but we ignore these obvious problem while we praise the money making ability of their upper classes and export our jobs to crush our own workers. Could we get at least on Congress member to think about this?

    The sad state of the untouchables in India isn’t something far away. It is a situation that could happen here.

  17. It just shatters me to the quick there are still areas that are in a plight like this and we complain about what we do. These people live in a collective world where the individual truly does not count

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