Time to clean up soiled act
Arunima Sehgal

India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their Work
by Gita Ramaswamy Navayana Publishing, Chennai. Pages 107. Rs 100.

India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their WorkManual scavenging in India is lifting and removal of human excreta manually. Though most of us might not be able to relate to the practice, this is an occupation for over 6.76 lakh people who work at 96 lakh dry toilets across the country and are forced to dispose human excreta.

Though banned under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act in 1993, the number of safai karamcharis/manual scavengers has been on the rise at private home, in community toilets, in the public sector such as the railways and by the Army.

This book is an attempt to bring to light this hidden practice, identify the issues related to it, report efforts made to combat the practice and the rise of people’s movement—Safai Karamchari Andolan. Besides examining and understanding the practice through the caste lens, the author attempts to understand and trace the roots of manual scavengers, their prevalence and transition of the community, and charts the rise and struggle of the safai karamchari to bring an end to the practice.

Manual scavenging, the author debates, rests on the foundation of the caste system, lying at the bottom of the Hindu social hierarchy, and is a worst expression of the beliefs endangered by the caste system. Given a ritual avoidance of excreta in India, and the reality that it cannot be avoided after all, the caste—Hindu society—found the solution in the "polluted" castes that would manually handle excreta. Scavenging and caste thus became intimately linked. The British rule in the 20th century, the author adds, further helped institutionalise manual scavenging in towns, instead of bringing in modern sanitation.

The author, a former "radical Leftist" who has spent over 30 years working for the rights of the castes involved in the practice, cites an interesting observation that in 2500 BC, the time of the Harappan civilisation, people had water-borne toilets in each house. Today, we need to ask ourselves as to why should human excreta in thousands of toilets, both community and individual, needs to be manually removed. The practice not only is an aberration of the caste hierarchy, but also is a result of the neglect and indifference towards the plight of socially excluded and exploited.

Chronicling the struggle of manual scavengers, the author gives a personal account of Bezwada Wilson, the unquestioned leader of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. Son of a scavenger in Karnataka, Wilson started the andolan out of anguish and anger in 1996 in Vijaywada along with a few human rights activists. The objective was to liberate and rehabilitate manual scavengers from their caste-based hereditary occupation. Though the andolan was successful in bringing the inhuman practice into the public eye, it still is fighting the caste battle.

Reiterating on the efforts needed to stop this belittling practice, the book emphasises that all it needs is more imaginative planning to rehabilitate scavengers in a local society. The book originally written in Telegu has been substantially revised for this English edition, under the study facilitated by the University of Southampton.

An important question that the book raises is how liberated we are from our caste mindset? If the answer is that caste is not a bias today, then we need to understand how does a practice like this still continue? To find answers read the book, so that it disturbs your conscience for a longer time.