How we have failed the manual scavenger. And Gandhi : The Tribune India

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Gandhi 150 Year: Embodiment of injustice, manual scavenging is a reminder that democracy has a deodorised conscience. When it wears out, it stinks

How we have failed the manual scavenger. And Gandhi

THE scavenger is one of the great characters of the nationalist movement.

How we have failed the manual scavenger. And Gandhi

Manual scavenging is a proof of India’s failure to follow Gandhian ideas. The Status of the scavenger shows emptiness of the current Gandhian thought, its alienation from justice. Photos: The Tribune and Agencies



Shiv Visvanathan 

THE  scavenger is one of the great characters of the nationalist movement. He is subject, agency, metaphor and he haunts Indian politics and society in a manner no other character could. The scavenger is index, conscience, litmus test of a style of politics; he haunts even the Partition. Political activist and poet Achyut Yagnik once told me a poignant story about Karachi during the Partition. As a group of manual scavengers were leaving part of the town, the residents, in a delegation, asked them to stay back, promising them protection. The residents admitted that they would not do without them. Even law and order was manageable but hygiene and dirt had their own demands.


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The manual scavenger has to be read in many ways. As a broken discard of the caste system, he is still the casualty of the sanitation system. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan as a project falls or survives depending on the future of the manual scavenger. But the scavenger is not the object of policy. He can help redefine it. For example, the scavenger is an embodiment of the sensorium. As Bezwada Wilson once suggested, by rethinking smell, you can redefine a city. A scavenger can challenge the deodorised Brahmanic city and make one rethink the elitism of planning. Oddly, the only college Gandhi established was a college for scavengers at Gandhi Ashram.

Between the scavenger as innovator, working sewage waste and dirt, Gandhi had the outlines of a different city and a different technology. If one explores the history of his ashrams, many of them experimented on flush tanks and various kinds of commodes. In many ways, the character of the scavenger was as important to Gandhi as the craftsmen and the peasant. Each unravelled a particular critique of society, body and technology. Each demanded a different grammar of innovation and justice. The scavenger was in many senses literally Gandhi’s last man, the touchstone, the index of evaluating any project, both in terms of livelihood and justice. But in a deeper way, like charkha, waste and the scavenger were metaphors of Gandhian thought.  

A Gandhian science

A Gandhian science began with the body, moved to food, enveloped craft. Central to all this was a kind of waste. Waste was a polyphonic term. It evokes dirt, irrelevance, junk, obsolescence, pollution, stigma but for Gandhi, waste like craft challenged modern technology. Waste and obsolescence were drawbacks of modern technology and society. For Gandhi, waste was something to be reworked and rethought. Gandhi would rethink the modern slum around waste, observing like the scientist CV Sheshadari that “waste is the only resource of a wasted people”. Scavenging in that sense becomes a way of thinking, of improvising, of literally recreating a city. It was not just a plan for sewage but a sense of how rethinking waste would redefine the idea of a wasted people in society. For Gandhi, every person had to be his own scavenger, and he forced even Kasturba to clean the latrine. She found it ritually polluting and protested but for Gandhi, an immaculate toilet was the beginning of modern civics.

The sociologist and philosopher Ivan Illich has a wonderful essay on the little cottage where Madeline Slade and Vinoba Bhave lived. Illich writes that the toilet was immaculate, washed so systematically that it shone like marble. Illich’s essay reminds of the artist Marcel Duchamp’s attempt to call or exhibit the commode as a work of art. The critics objected but Duchamp replied that art was anything defined as art by the artist. All it required was a label. Gandhi went further to point out that when we internalise labels, we transform ways of life. The scavenger becomes the artist and the scientist free India desperately needed.

By reworking waste and reimagining the scavenger, India should have redefined its modernity. Also Gandhi, who always lived in cities, sensed the scavenger as an urban creature, an urban style. Scavenging was a way of walking the city, thinking subsistence and foraging accordingly. Scavenging could lead not just to an urban civics but urban forms which changed lifestyles and livelihoods and thereby altered the construction of both caste and the city. When he called Harijan children of God, he was not oblivious to the dictum that cleanliness was next to Godliness and also the cleaner was closer to God. One wished he had worked out the mythology of scavenging more systemically.

My friend, the writer, DR Nagraj once asked me what were the roots of a Dalit science. Nagraj was clear as a Dalit and as a scholar that the battle against untouchability could not just be expressed as a cry of pain. It had to be a science. A conversation between Gandhi and Ambedkar could have created not just a Dalit politics but a Dalit science, where scavenging becomes a way of reading science and city. If the charkha reworked the machine, the scavenger reworked science and city. The scavenger was the apt model of citizenship and science for modern India.   

Unthinking urban violence

One sees it drastically in the idea of manual scavenging with all its sense of hierarchy, pollution, degradation. A manual scavenger dying in a drain was the epitome of unthinking urban violence. Bezwada Wilson, talking of Modi’s Swachh Abhiyan, put it succinctly and dismissively, “That’s all very well, but at the end of every Swachh Abhiyan, there is a septic tank and a Dalit.” What Wilson emphasised was that there was nothing transformative about Swachh andolan.

Manual scavenging has to be rethought and in the failure of rethinking lies the failure of Indian democracy to rethink citizenship and livelihood, waste and science and reworking the idea of the sensorium into the city. Manual scavenging remains an embodiment of injustice and failure of India to follow Gandhian ideas and rethink the manual scavenger as a creative archetype for social change. The status of the scavenger shows the emptiness of current Gandhian thought and its alienation from justice. The status of the scavenger is an index of well-being. One failed Gandhi here but the sadness is that awarding Modi a prize for Swachh Abhiyan insults both Gandhi and the scavenger. The tragedy of scavenging as a manual task begins in this failure of possibilities. Instead of being a life-giving hypothesis, it has become a necrophilic ritual. Nothing could insult Gandhi more on the 150th anniversary. The scavenger is a reminder that democracy has a deodorised conscience. When it wears out, it stinks.

The workforce, IN NUMBERS

  • The latest annual report (2018-19) prepared by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment identifies 34,749 manual scavengers
  • This is in addition to 14,505 manual scavengers identified by 13 states as per the provisions of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013
  • Thus, a total of 49,254 manual scavengers have been identified. The report had noted that Rajasthan, Punjab and West Bengal were the only states which reported an increase in the number of manual scavengers in the last two years.

‘Essential, but get a raw deal’

Scavengers get a raw deal despite the fact that society can’t survive without their services. We always place a doctor next to God. If a doctor refuses treatment, only a few patients will lose their lives. But if a scavenger stops work, the entire society can be wiped off. —Bant Singh, balladeer and symbol of dalit oppression

—  The writer is a noted academic

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