Every morning, the women get up and leave their own homes, to go to the homes of people whose excreta they will shortly handle. Some go at 4 am, or 6 am, or 7 am. It all depends on how many homes they have to clean.
Nowadays, there aren't that many. But there are enough to keep an estimated 12 lakh people involved in this shit-handling business.
No gloves, no face-masks. No disinfectant, and often, no water to bathe with, afterwards.
90 % of the time, it is women who do this. Sometimes, they even profess a deep sympathy with their employers, because they understand that women, at least, must have 'a place to go'. Where public flush toilets are not available, it is but natural that dry laterines will persist.
This, I did not understand.
When I pointed out to the scavenger women that these poor women, whose shit they were going to carry, were often loaded with gold jewelry, and that the government anyway gives huge subsidies for the construction of new toilets, they fell silent. They had never thought about that. Nobody had ever taught them to think like that.
So, I prodded - why do they do it?
Because, they said, they didn't know how to do anything else. They were never sent to school. Their brothers were sent, often. But they were not. Or, if they were, they were withdrawn after class 3, or 4 or 5.
And what do their men do?
Some men do the same task. They are more often assigned to community dry laterines, where - because of much larger volumes of shit - they use wheelbarrows to transport the stuff. Sometimes, they get the women to do the actual cleaning of the laterine and only do the transportation themselves. Many more men tackle the sewers.
Many toilets - even though they are pour-flush/wet laterines - are built on top of a septic tank. Once every few years, people need this tank cleaned. Once, every few years, the male scavengers will go down into this sewer, wearing only their lungis or their underwear, with a bucket and a stick. That's all.
Some die. All that trapped sewage makes for noxious gases. Open the manhole and, if you don't watch out, the posionous gases knock you out. Once unconscious, if you fall in, you're as good as dead. If you don't fall in, you could be very seriously sick.
Each life-threatening cleaning job will only cost Rs 500-600. It is done mostly at night. Because, in the daytime, the open tank will stink and the house-owners don't want the smell. Also, because the law stipulates that - if such tanks must be cleaned, the worker be provided with proper equipment, and that oxygen masks be handy. Of course, there is no oxygen mask. Of course, there is no protective gear.
But such jobs don't come by every day. In Nand Nagri, I was told that one man only gets to clean a septic tank maybe once in two-three months. The household is run by women, the rest of the time.
These women are not always brought up cleaning shit. Some, like Meena, went to school. She, clearly, did not enjoy lifting shit.
Why did she do it?
Because she didn't have a choice.
If their mothers don't induct them into scavenging, their mothers-in-law do. Or their husbands do. If their husbands are also scavengers, they will often work together. For instance, the man, using a stick, will un-clog the gutter into which the shit is flushed. The woman will pick it up and carry it in baskets.
The filthiest task is left to the woman, wherever possible.
Because, like I've said here, manual scavenging is about caste, about gender, about oppression.
In the caste order, it is not the sudra, but the sudra woman who is at the bottom of the heap. And you oppress those you can oppress, because they're at the bottom of the heap. Those who have been conditioned into thinking that this is their lot, and this is their duty. Those who think they cannot escape, for they have nowhere else to go. Those on whom you can collectively gang up, and whom you can accuse of breaking a social code, should they try to escape. Those whom you can beat the shit out of, because everybody else does it, and has been doing it for centuries.