Our dirty secret: Dalits suffer more, then clean our filth

Published on: December 15, 2015
a sanitation worker must be given gloves, masks, gumboots, towels, soap and oil. “If a sanitation worker is not given proper protective equipment, it constitutes a crime according to the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act. The act says that if they are not given protective gear, their work will amount to manual scavenging,” Anbuvedan says.

As many as 78 men from the Dindigul municipality are camping in a mariage hall in Gajalakshmi colony of Chennai. They were provided with only seven gumboots. None of them have been given gloves, masks, soap or oil.

These luxuries haven’t been granted to local sanitary workers either. “I was given gloves and chappals (not gumboots) but they don’t fit properly. It is not easy to work with ill fitting equipment,” says Kannamma, 50, a sanitary worker with the Chennai corporation. She confirms that she has cleaned human excrement with her bare hands and says, “Toilets everywhere are flooded. Half of the city is defecating in the open. And there are the dead animals.”

At the north zonal headquarters of the Chennai corporation a sanitary supervisor proudly boasts that the workers have been provided with footwear, gloves and masks. When she is persuaded to show the equipment, it turns out the gloves are made of cloth, the footwear is rubber slippers and the masks are made of a kind of sheer material. All the cops and firemen though have been given nicely fitting gumboots that stand out because of their bright yellow soles.

Only around 700 of the 7,000 sanitary workers in the city are permanent employees of the corporation and get above Rs 15,000 per month. The rest are on contract and are paid anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 290 as daily wages. No work means no pay. There are no sick leaves. “The corporation hasn’t hired permanent sanitary staff for 15 years. There is a severe manpower shortage,” says Anbuvedan.

Kannamma, whose house in the Ezhil Nagar slum is under waist-deep water, is back at work. She has been a permanent employee of the city corporation for the last eight years and is entitled to all the leaves that other government servants get. “Nobody has told me how many leaves I can take. I don’t understand these things because I am not educated. I have come to work because I don’t want my salary cut,” she says.

Here is another well known fact: all of Chennai’s and indeed all of Tamil Nadu’s sanitation workers are either Dalits or Adivasis. Most of them are from the Arundhadiyar Scheduled Caste.

“Everybody in Chennai has suffered equally because of the floods. But only my people will go through the extra suffering of cleaning Chennai’s rotting s**t. Why can’t the concerned citizens and celebrities who are distributing food and blankets also clean up the city? Why is the media only projecting them as heroes?” asks Ravichandran Bathran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study who is also from the Arundhadiyar community.

“Everybody complains of resevations in higher institutions but nobody talks about reservations in the lower institutions. In the business of cleaning s**t, there is 100% reservation for Dalits. Why don’t people from other castes join this work?” says Ravichandran.

To be fair, a handful of the citizens’ groups have picked up the broom. The Jamat-e-Islami Hind made headlines when they cleaned Hindu temples. The residents of Choolaimedu cleaned up their own trash and proudly put up photos on Facebook that were shared 10,000 times at last count. And one Tamil actor is planning to organise a team of citizens who will get down to cleaning. They are waiting for protective gear to arrive.

“They will clean the streets but will they clean the gutters? Will they get into manholes that are clogged with rubbish? Even if they do, they will surely wear all the protective equipment,” says A Narayanan, director of Change India, an NGO that works for the eradication of manual scavenging.

The first signs of an epidemic are already here. Doctors in many government hospitals in the city are confirming cases of rat fever, jaundice and mosquito-borne diseases. While there are bound to be glorious exceptions, as a rule, it will be a silent army of people, mostly belonging to one lowered caste, that will fight this danger with their bare hands.

The sanitary workers are now working in those parts of the city that have not been heavily inundated by the floods. They are waiting for the waters to subside in the worst affected areas. It may be weeks before the water recedes. By then the trash would have decomposed some more. By then most of the cops, firemen and reporters might be back to their regular beats.

The Asian age thereafter reported on the issue on December 15, 2015
[1] Dalits suffered more than others in flood-hit Cuddalore: Report
[2] Scant aid for low-caste villagers hit by Chennai floods in south India - charities