Rose George | Going to the Sulabh

Photo by Karen Robinson

Photo by Karen Robinson

It drips on her head most days, says Champaben, but in the monsoon season it’s worse. In rain, worms multiply. Every day, nonetheless, she gets up and walks to her owners’ house, and there she picks up their excrement with her bare hands or a piece of tin, scrapes it into a basket, puts the basket on her head or shoulders, and carries it to the nearest waste dump. She has no mask, no gloves, and no protection. She is paid a pittance if she is paid at all. She regularly gets dysentery, giardia, brain fever. She does this because a 3,000- year- old social hierarchy says she has to.

In the beginning, the Original Being created four varnas. From his mouth came the Brahmins, who would be the priests, teachers, and intellectuals. From the arms came the Kshatriya, the warriors and rulers. From his thighs came the Vaisya, who were the administrators, the bureaucrats, the merchants; and from his feet the Being formed the Shudra, the farmers and peasants. Inside these varnas are thousands of subgroupings, each with a traditional occupation attached. All of it makes up the Hindu caste system, still pervasive and influential in modern India. In its report Broken People, Human Rights Watch summed up caste as “the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy . . . a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity.” It is indeed complex, changing from region to region and from one religious interpretation to another. But all over India one thing is common: beneath the castes are the outcastes, the polluted and the untouchable. They are untouchable because they handle human shit.

They used to be known as bhangi, a word formed from the Sanskrit for “broken,” and the Hindi for “trash.” Today, official India calls them the Scheduled Castes, but activists prefer Dalits, a word that means “broken” or “oppressed” but with none of the negativity of bhangi. Most modern Indians don’t stick to their caste jobs anymore. There is more intercaste marriage, more fluidity, more freedom than ever before, but the outcastes are usually still outcastes, because they are still the ones who tan India’s animals, burn its dead, and remove its excrement.

Champaben is considered untouchable by other untouchables—even the tanners of animals and the burners of corpses—because she is a safai karamchari. This literally means “sweeper” but is generally translated into English as “manual scavenger,” a term popularized by India’s British rulers, who did nothing to eradicate the practice and much to keep it going. This scavenging has none of the usefulness of its usual meaning. There is no salvaging of waste, no making good of the discarded. Champaben recycles nothing and gains nothing. She takes filth away and for this she is considered dirt.

There are between 400,000 and 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, depending on who is compiling the figures. They are employed by private families and by municipalities, by army cantonments and railway authorities. Their job is to clean up feces wherever they present themselves: on railway tracks, in clogged sewers. Mostly, they empty India’s dry latrines. A latrine is usually defined as a receptacle in the ground that holds human excreta, but dry latrines often don’t bother with receptacles. They usually consist of two bricks, placed squatting distance apart on flat ground. There is no pit. There may be a channel or gutter nearby, but that would be luxury. The public ones usually have no doors, no stalls, and no water. There are still up to 10 million dry latrines in India, and they prob ably only survive because Champaben and others are still prepared to clean them.

I meet Champaben in a village in rural Gujarat. Like every other state in India, Gujarat is bound by the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which makes manual scavenging illegal on pain of a year’s imprisonment or a 2,000 rupee ($45) fine. On paper, Champaben doesn’t exist, and on paper, she is as free as the next villager. Untouchability has been illegal in India since 1949, when it was abolished by means of Article 17 of the
Constitution of India. Champaben knows that. But what can she do? Scavengers have been doing their work since they were children, and they will do it until they die, and then their children will take over. Champaben’s mother- in- law, Gangaben, is seventy- five years old. She has been scavenging for fifty years. In a village nearby, I meet Hansa and her daughter, Meena, who is ten. Meena has already been introduced to her mother’s job because she has to do it when her mother is ill or pregnant or both. Most manual scavenging is done by women, because they marry into it and have no choice. Men in the manual scavenger class often hide their profession from prospective brides until it’s too late, and they can then escape their foul work in alcohol, because they have a wife to do it for them. Some scavengers work in cities as sewer cleaners and unclog blockages with their bare hands, their only protection a rope. They are regularly killed. Last year, three men died of asphyxiation, one after the other, when they entered a manhole in New Delhi.

The women talk freely. They are chatty and assertive and pristine. I look at them and try to see the dirt on them and in them, but I can’t. They are elegant and beautiful even when they bend down to pick up the two pieces of cracked tin they use to scoop up the excrement; when they demonstrate how they sweep the filth into the basket; when they lift the basket high with arms glittering with bangles, with considerable grace. Their compound is dusty but not dirty, though they are not given soap by their employers—whom they refer to more accurately as their “owners”—and though they are not allowed to get water from the well without permission from an upper- caste villager. They offer me a tin beaker of water, and the water is yellow. “Look at it,” says Mukesh, an activist from a local Dalit organization called Navsarjan who has accompanied me. “Look at what they have to drink.” The beaker presents a quandary. I consider pathogens and fecal- oral contamination pathways, but also that they’ll expect me to refuse to take a drink from an untouchable, because many Indians would. I take a sip and hope for the best, feeling pious and foolish, imagining bugs and worms slipping down into my guts, wreaking havoc.

Mukesh has been to this village before. Plenty of well- meaning activists have been here before. “You come here all the time, you institute people,” says Gangaben. “And what do you do? Nothing.” Gangaben is the most indignant. She disappears into the house and returns with two chappatis—flatbreads—on a plate. Look at this, she says. This is what I was paid today. Scraps. Privately employed scavengers usually get paid 5 rupees (about ten cents) per month, per house. Municipal day wages are 30 rupees (less than a dollar) a day, but scavengers are often unpaid for months on end. Who will dare to stand up to their employer? When I ask Hansa to show me where she works, she refuses. No way. “My owners would skin me alive.” She is deadly serious, and deadliness is something she has to consider.

There are laws to protect Dalits, to criminalize untouchability, and to outlaw manual scavenging, but they are not enforced. Violence and abuse against Dalits is endemic and unceasing. Over six months in 2006, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice surveyed the Indian media for reports of abuse against Dalits and gathered a few headlines:

“Dalit leader abused for daring to sit on a chair”
“Dalit lynched while gathering grain”
“Dalit beaten for entering temple”
“Dalit girl resists rape, loses arm as a result”
“Dalit tries to fetch water beaten to death”



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