Submitted By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
We 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.
In 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
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