Most of us, let's face it, do not think about things that do not concern us. We say, or at least, think - "What's it to me?" or "Not my problem" or "Hame kya? Hamara kya jaata jaata?"
Most of us look the other way. I don't pretend to be very different. Things that absorb my time, attention, capacity for outrage, are usually things that I see, feel, fear. Things that resonate with me because, in some form, however briefly, I've experienced them.
Manual scavenging, as a problem, as an outrage, resonated with me because, although I have never had to pick up anybody's shit, I know what it feels like to step into it.
My real association with this story, thus, begins four years ago...
I was a very young reporter working for Mid-day, and had to be out on the 'field' most of the day. As all women reporters know, one of the biggest problems with being on the field is toilets. Or, the lack of them.
This is not just because of our anatomy, or because of a special need for privacy. This is also because women's toilets - by and large - are non-existent. Especially in cities.
For instance, there are stalls for men - operational urinals, some of which even have running water... the luxury! - at almost all railways stations in Bombay. Not so for women. The few urinals that do exist are often locked - yes, padlocked, for god's sake! - with no attendant in sight. (I once asked why, and was told that this is because 'unsuitable' activities happen inside the women's loos. Go figure.)
Some women's toilets are used as a dumping ground - concrete and rubble from some railway construction project - or as store-rooms (have seen bags of cement stored inside). The logic being that 'women don't like to go here, anyway'.
And some are simply abandoned.
One day, at a station on the western line - somewhere between Andheri and Dadar - I actually managed to find a women's loo that was not locked. And made the mistake of stepping inside the darkened enclosure.
My foot squelched and sank into something soft. It took a couple of seconds to register what the mess was - it was about two inches of shit. Human shit all over the floor.
I withdrew the foot and stepped back outside.
Suddenly, it seemed as if the world had turned dark. As if the station was empty. There was just me, and my outrage. And the overwhelming humiliation.
I didn't recognize the feeling, immediately. At that time, I burst into tears. It took a week to recover, a week before I could stop my mind from going back to that moment of shock and bursting into tears all over again, before I stopped feeling like I needed a million baths.
But now, I clearly recognize that feeling - it was humiliation.
When I discovered that there are people in this country who must handle shit for a living, the humiliation returned. The outrage returned too. If one accidental brush with a clogged toilet could make me so miserable, could reduce me to tears - how must they be feeling? What does it do to you - psychologically, emotionally - to have to do it, day after day?
If I cannot forget that one accidental day, how do they live - constantly struggling to forget? Why should they not live in denial? Why should anyone expect that, one fine day, they will rise up, revolt and throw away their brooms, because we tell them to?
I know that if I had to do their work for even one week, I would be destroyed. My spirit would die. What right have I to expect that their spirit, their sense of dignity, their sense of self, will be intact? Intact enough to make them stop doing their work, without a moment's thought?
No wonder, the one effective bargaining tool activists have is the word 'children'. Your children... do you want them to go on living like this? And it always prompts a response - 'No. Not our children'. For the children's sake, they will throw a lifetime of humiliation away, throw away this livelihood, break down the structures that lead to this humiliation.
And no wonder, public sanitation IS an issue with me. It IS personal. It IS a part of my politics. That day, four years ago, at a suburban railway station in Bombay, it ceased to be somebody else's problem.