Gita Ramaswamy, who is a social activist talks about how scavenging is related to Hindu religion in India. She was speaking recently at a lecture organized by the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP), University of Hyderabad (UoH). Gita Ramaswamy’s India Stinking studies in detail the issues relating to manual scavenging with particular reference to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which accounts for about 1.6 lakh manual scavengers employed for cleaning private and public latrines.

“Manual Scavenging is one major area of concerns in the whole range of Dalit issues which shows up Hindu liberal. We pretend that it does not exist but it is such a visible thing everywhere in the country,” says Gita expressing her concerns over the state of scavengers in India.

For a number of factors, the issue had been there under the rags for long time. Initially, some Dalits were unhappy and hesitant to be talked about their works. “They would say that whatever we do would be known to everyone and that would be shameful,” says Gita. However, the issue was brought to light after a few people came upfront through Safai Andolan. The first challenge was to find out where manual scavenging was going on since people tend to hide their work. So safai karmchari started identifying places where manual scavenging was practiced in dry latrines first in united Andhra Pradesh state and then moved to the other cities as well.

Gita expresses her discontent on campaigns like Swatch Bharat Abhiyan and says, “In few instances the garbage is brought, and then cleaned by a celebrity. This is such a tragedy that you have no resources for addressing manual scavenging issue but you are talking about Swatch Bharat which means that wherever important people congregate, somebody will take up a Jhadu and sweep the place. But wherever the problem is acute in most parts of India, there are no measures taken.”

Through her observations, Gita draws the statistics where every year 25,000 workers die in manholes. She questions the value of human life if a person is a manual scavenger. “How supreme court just gives 10 lakhs to the family of victims and be done with it?” she wonders.

Linking Hindu religion directly to scavenging, Gita asks, “Why do democratic India have these problems while Pakistan, Bangladesh, West countries, South-East countries like Malaysia, and Arab countries don’t?” “I am linking this with religion directly because unlike any other country, there is a caste of people who are scavengers only in India. In her opinion, manual scavenging expanded phenomenally and entrenched itself under the British rule, particularly in the mid-18th century that marked the beginning of industrialisation and urbanisation in the subcontinent. “When urbanisation set in – which should have rationally led to scientific sewage practices – Hindu society found it convenient to force ‘madigas’ and ‘bhangis’ into manual scavenging,” says Gita.

The people who were brought from villages to lay roads and railway tracks were later used for menial jobs. Stating that the British ‘institutionalised’, if not invented, manual scavenging, she observes, “Technology is supposed to remove social prejudice; however, the technology of sanitation was structured to deepen social prejudice in India.” Gita, who stayed with manual scavengers for several months, gives a poignant account of their struggle and emphasises the need to abolish manual scavenging at the earliest. “The existing practices of sanitation in municipalities need to be reformed and upgraded so that no one – from any caste – has to pick up faeces manually,” she pleads. She also highlighted the splendid work done by Safai Karamchari Andolan under the dynamic leadership of its founder, Bezwada Wilson, to the cause of liberating this deprived section.

Gita concludes with what Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had to say regarding scavengers, “A man is a scavenger not because of his works but his birth.”

By Nidhi Gupta, MA-Communication