Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Shit - 1

A month ago, somebody asked me what story I was working on.

I told her.

'Manual? What?"

"Manual scavenging."

"What's that?"

"It's when people lift other people's shit. Real, literal shit, not the metaphorical kind."

She shook her head. "Really? So where will you be traveling?"

"Different places. But I will start will Delhi."

Her husband shook his head. "Delhi? This doesn't happen in Delhi."

He refused to believe it. "It can't be... maybe in villages where people are backward."

I don't blame him. We all think we're so progressive and this sort of thing doesn't happen in India. Not in the cities. Possibly, in the villages, where people don't know any better.

That is what we want to believe. That is what we cannot bear not to believe. That is, nevertheless, the truth. It is illegal. It is unfair. But it is the truth.

Yet, I understand the reluctance to accept it. I find it hard to speak about it. And naturally, even those who must do this ultimate-in-filthy-jobs are reluctant to talk.

In Delhi, in Shahdara, I met the women whom you could call, in polite terms, manual scavengers. In Panipat, in Haryana, I met some more. In Punjab, in Samral, yet more.... when we talked about it, we referred to manual scavening as "ye kaam" or "kacchi khuddiyo.n ka kaam" (work of the dry laterines).

They're usually neat, polite smiling women. Women who scoop up human excreta with a piece of tin and a rough broom and put it in bamboo baskets which they must carry away. On their shoulders. On their hips. On their heads.

Which is why many a government document mentions the term 'headloading'. Some government officials have even been insensitive enough to counter dalit activists' accusations of the continuing of the practice of headloading by saying that "they don't carry it on their heads; only their hips."

It is hard to come to terms with it, is it not? That there are a few thousand, tens of thousand, a few lakh people who must lift other people's excreta to be able to survive. That we immediately take to technology via mobile phones and CD players, the moment we can afford it, but we will not invest a few thousand rupees to build new toilets, to buy better sanitation, to hire consultants to think about what can be done towards better sewage systems.

To think that we let it happen - that nobody takes out processions in protest, that no bandhs are called in the capital, that nobody ostracises anybody in your city who employs another human being (at the rate of Rs 20 a month, and the occassional roti) to lift and carry your shit.

These are not nice things to think about. And I don't blame anybody for not wanting to think about them. But think, all the same.


One in the crowd said...

I saw such people back in Kerala...I happened to ask my chachi about it and the reply I got was "they aren't doing too badly for themselves. They get paid well". That was that. I didn't ask anything else. Their lives or the disgusting nature of their job never crossed my mind.

This is an eye-opener. It's so strange that the government wants to feign ignorance. Making the authorities acknowledge their presence seems to be a huge challenge in itself, let alone rehabilitating them.

editor said...

durust farmaaya aapne. lucknow meN to yeh boh't baRa mas'la hai.
across uttar pradesh, I remember in my childhood the lady would come and the entire family would leave the way for her...the mehtarani or even worse alfaaz were used.

The problem is that once the race towards upward mobility takes you with it, the eyes are closed and all issues, everything is easily forgotten. One has to make a good house, think of educating children in good convent schools, invest money in safe places etc etc

'sar par mailaa Dhonaa' as in MP it is called, this system continues as long as feudalism and casteism are there.

barbarindian said...

Your empathy towards them is commendable but does it occur to you that no one is really forcing them to do it? That it is merely economics at play? That the reason we still have so much manual labor and unemployment is basically the very socialism that you are a champion of?

Anonymous said...

Great work, Annie.

Anonymous said...


Sad, very sad. But is it not economics as barbarindian points out? Can we change one part of the system without overhauling everything else?

Please continue the series. I hope you will suggest some viable solutions and no, upgrading technology is very much part of the solution.

Vikrum said...


Thanks for writing this. Have you read Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand? He goes into this exact theme.

Sunil said...


Another excellent post. There's an old book by the Malayalam writer Sivasankara Pillai, which you can get in translation, called The Scavenger's son (I reviewed it, kinda, here). It was one of the most moving books I've read....about a "night soil" scavenger, who wanted better for his son....but you can guess what happens in the end...

nevermind said...

To say that no one's forcing them to do it is a bit like saying like saying that the farmers who commit suicide and the young women who commit suicide courtesy dowry harassment aren't being forced to do it. It's just the economics.

That is, util you've picked some shit yourself.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the story. Great work!
It was quite nauseating to read of such degradation.
A shame that sticks to all of us who can't callously say that 'it is merely economics at play' and shrug it off.

I remember the deranged Francois Gautier once did a story on scavengers in Delhi who were Brahmins. He was challenging the whole caste oppression theory, champion of the Hindutva forces as he is. Only, he forgot to mention that they were all secretaries, or clerks (or whatever you call them) at these public toilets, and did not actually do any scavenging themselves.

You'll find the story somewhere at Rediff News, but I have no doubt that barbarindian will do you the service of hunting down the story and giving us the link if you just wait for a while.

Annie Zaidi said...

blahblahblogger: nobody does anything they don't absolutely HAVE to. part of the battle is ensuring that the government and the people concerned feel that they absolutely have to.

indsribe: have heard of the problem in lucknow and other parts of UP. wonder what the rehab effort is like, though.

barbarin: have done a longer post on HOTHL, so the question might get answered there.

confused: ditto. and about overhauling the whole system.... i don't agree. overhauling the whole system is about overhauling individuals, smaller component systems and communities. the system is not a machine. it is us.

shivam: thanks. actually, double thanks.

sunil: had read your review much before i did the story :) i usually read everything i can find about a subject before i begin to work on it

Vikrum: have heard of it. in fact, this issue of frontline includes one article devoted entirely to literary references to scavengers.

nevermind: absolutely right. you don't know how it is until you've been there.

angry fix: saw that story when it was doing the fwd round.

Manini said...

I am so ashamed , I thought this does not happen anymore. To think people are still subjected to such inhuman conditions to earn a few bucks and the apathy of the whole system which offcourse includes us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a story that is as damning as it is revolting. I hope these people will have more choices as India's economy is unfettered. It may be a long long shitty wait though.

Balaji said...

Bloddy Hell. I never realised that such things still happen. I feel really sorry for those who have to do it....

Good work annie for taking the courage and investigating this story.

I am sure all those money that were allocated are lying comfy in some BABU's/politicians account...

Anonymous said...

Nurses, doctors, scientists and all kinds of people come across disgusting situations in their occupation. There is no need to make an issue out of it.

Excretion is not disgusting. By trying to represent their jobs as dealing with disgusting things, you are only making life tougher for them. You are projecting the idea that toilet-cleaning is a disgusting thing to do.

We all have it under our skins. We all have shit under our skins. We all can clean shit and see shit-cleaners as normally occupied. It is not a big issue.

I detest the kind of shit-cleaning that asks a man to enter a septic tank and get himself immersed in shit but carrying shit in a basket is not so bad. Somebody has to do it!! Somebody has to get the baby born out of us, somebody has to clean our vomit when we are sick, somebody has to cook, somebody has to wash!

Writing stuff out of it, like it is a big issue, is shittier! One of those mass-guilt programmes! Bah!

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