India’s toilet scavengers escape dirty work through new training
Course seeks to help scavengers of toilets and sewers find a life of dignity and self-respect after years of internalised discrimination
During Baby’s nine years as a scavenger removing human excrement from dry toilets, no one gave her rubber gloves or protective clothing, as required by law.
Now she is training as a housekeeper and learning how to sweep and mop floors, and understands the importance of wearing rubber gloves, a mask and an apron.
“I hated my work but I had to do it. There was no choice,” says 49-year-old Baby, her only name. “The contractor never gave me anything to protect me from the stench and filth.”
Timid and reticent, she does not enjoy talking about her work. Her children are under strict instructions never to reveal it to their teachers or friends lest they are shunned. If landlords hear, the family will not be able to rent a room.
Baby is attending day three of the course, the first of its kind in India, which aims to help 28 scavengers of toilets and sewers find a new life of dignity and self-respect. In a section of the district magistrate’s complex in Shahdara, east Delhi, a classroom has been readied. An adjoining room has been converted into a mocked-up house with bed, fridge, washing machine, detergents and cleaning paraphernalia, and crockery.
“Start sweeping from the corners towards the centre of the room. When you mop, wring the cloth properly. And remember, dusting is done after sweeping and mopping,” says trainer Shushma Kherwal.
Kushal Kumar, a stocky 36-year-old, grabbed the chance to attend the training because he was determined to free his two sons from the destiny that had befallen his father and then him. More confident than the others, he pulls out the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner from under a shelf and looks at it, confused. “We will come to that later,” Kherwal tells him.
While Baby cleans the dry latrines of homes – toilets not connected to sewers or water – her husband Ramesh tackles blocked municipal sewers. When a contractor hires him, Ramesh strips to his underpants and lowers himself into a manhole until he is up to his neck in filth. He usually downs a quart of cheap, rough whisky to deaden his senses.
He scoops out the sludge that has blocked the sewer and throws it into a pail that has been lowered with a rope. Deaths from inhaling poisonous gases are frequent across India, even in the capital, New Delhi. The Delhi government only recently bought 200 mechanised machines for unblocking sewers.
For three months the trainees will learn how to become housekeepers so they can work in small hotels, hospitals, restaurants and government offices on salaries ranging from 12,000 rupees (US$169) a month to 16,000 rupees (US$225), as opposed to the 275 rupees they currently earn on the days they find work as scavengers.
The training is the result of Shahdara district magistrate Kumar Mahesh’s determination to end manual scavenging. Unlike other bureaucrats who do not know how many scavengers work in their areas, Mahesh has chosen to be proactive. He is personally ashamed that this degrading work continues across India 25 years after it was outlawed.
“These men and women occupy the lowest depths of Indian society. I should not be singled out for doing this. It’s my job and my duty,” he says. In fact, Kumar has urged the trainees to bring any of their children who are over the age of 18 so they can also train to be housekeepers, or learn to use computers.
He freed up two rooms in the building so that the NGO in charge of the training, the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society, did not have to rent space.
India’s Socio Economic Caste Census of 2011 found more than 180,000 families in rural areas were engaged in manual scavenging. Activists say that if you add urban areas, the real figure is more than one million.
Mahesh’s team found it hard to identify manual scavengers in Shahdara as many were too ashamed to admit their occupation. But they finally managed to persuade 28 people to enrol for the part-time course.
“They heard the word ‘cleaning’ and thought we were going to offer them the same filthy work,” says Rajesh Singh, the project manager. “It was only when we explained it would be a clean and respectable job, with a smart uniform and a decent regular salary, that they became more positive.”
Their suspicions also arose from the fact of having internalised discrimination to such an extent that they feel worthless and cannot believe that anyone could take an interest in their well-being without an ulterior movie. Most are Dalits (considered the lowest caste in India) which adds yet another layer of low self-worth.
News of the training is spreading. The Delhi government has promised to help expand the training to more manual scavengers. The target for the pilot project is to reach 50 people. Vinay Stephen of the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society says he is getting calls from officials in other states who are interested in setting up similar projects.
“If this is picked up all over the country, I am hoping we will see the death of this inhuman work in my lifetime,” he says.