Doms in Varanasi seek justice through honorable rehabilitation
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Hundreds of pilgrims seek to see the sunrise on the bank of Ganges in Varanasi and the boatmen go on live commentary of these ghats narrating the mythological details and the most poignant moment come when you see the Manikarnikaghat, Dashashwamegha Ghat and Harishchandraghat reminding you the stories of Raja Harishchandra's loyalty to his 'profession'. In an indirect reference, these are the same 'preaching' which ask you to do thy duty while 'result' is not thy concern. Secondly, Raja Harishchandra is 'applauded' because he remained defiant in 'asking' for 'money' amidst a great human tragedy in which a helpless woman does not have the money to 'pay' the charges for funeral which the Doms performs. It means that we should not show any human spirit and value to any one when situation warrants and just be 'committed' to our 'profession'. I think that is the most dangerous aspect of a philosophy which justified discrimination based on caste and gender.
The references to Domraj often come in these mythologies and they continue to do the task of burning dead bodies at the Ghats and cleaning human excreta in the city. Most of the land meant for them is already occupied and big ghats have erupted on the bank. Nothing has changed for them. In fact, they reflect the criminal civilization which kept them subjugated for thousands of years and the independence that we got in 1947 has no meaning for them as the community remains untouchables among untouchables absolutely ostracized and thoroughly disenfranchised in the holy city.
Officials in Varanasi claim that manual scavenging is absolutely abolished in the city and that there is not a single manual scavenger to be rehabilitated. It is strange and ironical. One would ask a simple question as where have the 'manual scavengers' gone? Is there any honorable rehabilitation done to them? Has untouchability finished from the 'holy city' and where does the 'holy shit' go if the city has become totally sanitized. These are some of the questions which need answer and introspection on part of the city which proudly claims to be the oldest city and a civilized one. Sorry, this is a city of Kabir, Ravidas and Buddha who revolted against brahmanical rituals and untouchability. So, attempt to show greatness of 'brahmanical rituals' in Varanasi need questioning.
It was on March 10th that we had a gathering of Women Engaged in Manual Scavenging in Uttar Pradesh in Varanasi with the National Commission for Women. The local journalists had started coming in as one member of the Commission was visiting here. Some reporters had started coming before time and as usual show their 'hurriedness' to the organizers. Others started chatting with the women who had come from different parts of the state. One must realize that Women engaged in manual scavenging hail from Balmikis, Rawats, Helas, Bansfors, Halalkhors and Doms in Uttar Pradesh as well as Bihar. All these communities are the most marginalized and face the brunt of untouchability from within the Dalit communities too. Interestingly, so many of the civil society organisations, human rights groups sitting in Varanasi but none bothered about this issue. I was told by every one that manual scavenging is not prevalent in Varanasi. My only question to them is whether entire Varanasi is covered under the sewage system. If not then where does the entire filth go?
The fact is Varanasi has all forms of manual scavenging and we will come to the 'original' form of manual scavenging by hand later but first demythise the fact that there does not exist any manual scavenging. Most of the municipal areas now have flushed toilets with septic tanks which need to be 'cleaned' in a month, six months or a year. Now, who clean them? And how do they clean them? Is there mechanical cleaning? No none is available. These 'flushed' toilets are cleaned by hand manually and the human excreta is unloaded through buckets by these communities. There is bargain for the money and the behavior of the people is not just being rude but also humiliating. It seems they all think it is the job of these communities alone.
It was interesting to see journalist speaking to these women and then turned to me in an attempt to dress me down. 'What are the organisations doing for them? You have called a meeting for 'manual scavenging' and 'these' people are asking for 'houses'. 'They earn a lot. They ask for Rs 500/- for cleaning one toilet. Can you imagine how big is it when people engaged in MNREGA do not get that much, he said. Do you have any figures of these people and then made a statement that these people just get everything and are not keen to do any other work.'
I was listening to him patiently but my temper was running out of control. ' If I am coming from Delhi to tell you and the people in Varanasi that this heinous practice is still prevailing in this city then whose fault is it ? You people claim that there is no 'carrying night-soil overhead' and hence no 'manual scavenging' but the new act of 2013 define Sewage work, gutter, cleaning of septic tanks, work on railway platform apart from cleaning toilets is 'manual scavenging' and on that viewpoint itself the municipal authorities in Varanasi and elsewhere are on the wrong side and must be made accountable and answerable.
Varanasi is being cleaned these days yet you can see filth and garbage everywhere. The roads are dusty and over-crowded with chaos and anarchy on the roads. Everywhere, it is those who have served the city for centuries they are facing the trouble. Their locations are under the threat of eviction. Doms and Hellas have no place to go. In the 'holy' city their only duty is to keep the city 'clean' but not to ask anything for them.
Basanti Devi is from Manduwadih and along with 70 Dom families they are living on the one side of the railway track. An oral notice has been given to them to evict the land. 'We have been living here for over 40-50 years without any facilities. We have served people but we have no place to go? Where will our children go', she says. Others like Mehangi says that the community is in deep trouble as alcoholism is killing the community youths and hence they are unable to speak of their rights.
"I am 20 years old but we have been staying here since my grand- parents' period. I have no children. I do clean toilets, wash it, pick up the latrine, clean septic tanks etc. I have to get into the septic tank and supply the 'maal' i.e. garbage of human excreta upward to throw it away. It's a kind of daily wage work which we do regularly though not really able to get it daily. We do all kind of work related to sanitation. If the latrine is choked then we have to do it manually by pushing through hands', says Sanjay.
The work is tough, filthy, dangerous and not a single persons job. It takes 12 hours to clean a septic tank and threat perception is very high. The total number of people engaged could be as low as 5. When I asked them about how a reporter of a leading daily was mocking at them claiming that there charges were very high, Sanjay responded,' Sir, it is full day work and if there are five persons engaged in it and sometime more than that, then how much one earn in a day. Most of the time, we get between Rs 50-100 and they claim it is too much. It is more humiliation. People don't even want to pay money for the work we do', he emphasized.
Initially, I thought that the work may be just of cleaning the septic tanks and of males alone but to my utter surprise and shock, Varanasi's Doms children and female wards too are engaged in the work. Sehjanti and other women go to nearby areas to clean the latrines and get Rs 50/- for their work for a month from one family. They too are engaged in cleaning of septic tanks and big pits which fills in regular intervals in a month period to a year's period but work is coming daily.
Look like we are talking in the 16th century when laws of Manu were prevalent and there was no constitution. Can you imagine people not getting access to water and being threatened with Rs 2000 fine for getting access to water? The people who clean the city, pick our garbage, cremate our dead ones are treated as untouchables and do not have a space to live. Can we imagine people not having access to water for a fortnight? Can we imagine people not able to take bath for a month? It is easier for us to claim that Doms or Mushahars or Bansfors are 'dirty' but have we asked a simple question as why do they remain unclean? They clean your city, burn your dead ones but have no right to life. No right to live in dignity. Moreover, we do not feel offended to see their condition. We assume that if it is their 'fundamental' duty to do this work. Isn't it utterly disgraceful? When I asked Sanjay, a local youth as why they continue to do this work? 'What do we do'? 'Our parents did it, our grandparents did it. My mother did it. We never went to any school', he reply. 'We too want to see our children becoming officer but how do we do it? Unless government help it is difficult. At this moment, the untouchability and caste system is so powerful that none will give them any other 'job', Says Sanjay.
'Who will give us job other than this? If we don't do this than what is the source of our survival? Even this money does not come with respect. There are so many questions with contempt. For small money people think they are doing a great favor to us' he says.
Doms face untouchability at all level. Their children are not allowed to enter in the school. The other caste children keep a distance from them. Vikki inform me that he went to school for a few days and then when they came to know about his father, work and caste he was sent back. ' you don't need to study, he was told. A child who is not even 10 years of age, Vikky looks older than his age. He now help his family in the 'work'. He clean the latrine and also goes into cleaning the septic tank. It is so painful to see the children being taken for the 'work'.
It is our combine failure. Whether it is Varanasi or Mumbai, Delhi or Hyderabad, Chennai or Banglore, Tirpuati or Madurai or Hawarh, manual scavenging is a shame, a blot on Indian nation. Unless, we are determined to abolish it from the root, it would not go away. It need strong and unambiguous national resolve as well as honorable rehabilitation of the communities engaged in manual scavenging, will ensure its complete elimination.
It is not that the Doms don't want to come out of this filth but as a society we need to do make them feel that they are part of our society. We need a comprehensive package for them so that they are honorably rehabilitated and their children go to school.
Varanasi Municipal Corporation has denied that manual scavenging does not exists there and that they do not need to rehabilitate it. According to the 2014 Act, the government was supposed to identify people engaged in manual scavenging and honorably rehabilitate them. Through this note, I am asking a few things and hope authorities will respond to it and act on it.
1. If manual scavenging is absolutely abolished in Varanasi then where are the people who were engaged in it ? How many of them have been rehabilitated by the government. Is there any record of related to their honorable rehabilitation?
2. Can the government inform us the exact number of Hellas, Rawats, Bansfors, Doms, Halalkhors are living in Varanasi. They are living in slums, in the outskirts and what is the status of their citizenship? Do they have right to vote and identity cards etc.
3. If Varanasi is Manual scavenging free then I want to ask how many areas are covered under the sewage system. If the entire city is not covered under the sewage system then what happens to the other areas outside the sewage areas. Can we get some data regarding the same? Who clean the sewage lines in Varanasi? Does the municipality has any record of people being killed during cleaning process. If yes, how many and what was the compensation. Does the Corporation know that Sewage workers too come under the manual scavenging act after the definition was broadened?
4. There is a fact that most of Varanasi is not covered under Sewage system and hence people have made septic tanks and pit latrines which are cleaned by the people from these communities we have mentioned above. According to the Elimination of Manual Scavenging Act 2013, cleaning the septic tanks or pits etc too falls under the category of manual scavenging. Hence, we would like to know the exact number of persons engaged in this work and what action the municipal corporation plan to take in this regard? What will be your rehabilitation policy for these communities?
5. Doms are on the verge of eviction from Madudih and Sunderpur areas. There is a threat. They have not got any alternative place to live. None of them have identity cards and other facilities which government should have provided to them. We demand immediate action in this regard.
6. There is manual scavenging prevalent in Varanasi even according to old pattern of carrying nightsoil in buckets and baskets. When will government identity the exact number of people and rehabilitate them. Will it take action against people who are compelling people into it.
7. What is number of people employed by Varanasi Municiple Corporation ? How many of them hail from the manual scavenging communities? Are there any Hellas, Halalkhors and Doms in any of the Corporation's public work ? If not then why? Which communities are 'technically' recruited for 'sanitation work' in the corporation?
These questions came in my mind when I glanced through government information that no manual scavenging exists in Varanasi. Social activists, organisations as well as media had no clue about it which is more than shameful. I was determined about it that it exists as the abovementioned questions were there in my mind. Being an old city, Varanasi could not have changed over night to become Scavenging free. Hence, I had send a team to investigate the matter and visit these busties who reported to me about septic tanks cleaning. None was clear about the manual scavenging act which includes all these practices into the definition of manual scavenging. That apart, all these people I mentioned spoke to me and as well as in the Conference called by the National Commission for Women on March 10th in Varanasi. Later, I visited the Manduadih basti and have recorded the statements of the people. Right now, we hope that Uttar Pradesh government will take immediate action on it and not through denying the very existence of it but by the honorable rehabilitation of the people and fix accountability of the officials who have no clue about it.