Friday, September 22, 2006

Shit - 3

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.


editor said...

I am really at loss how to react. It is too disturbing though I am aware of this problem, having a few women reporters around in my ten years as a journalist.
The other day I saw a toilet for women getting constructed in the heart of Old City but when I passed by the area after a month, I found that it was locked. You are absolutely right, I fail to realise why these toilets are kept locked all over--Delhi, Lucknow, Bhopal where I have seen. Besides, I never found anybody around...caretaker kind...who could give key, if demanded.
Khair. I guess it is considered too embarrassing to discuss it, though it should not be. And also perversion like for males to talk. Women will have to do something about it. There are women corporators/councillors and janpad members at all levels. Then NGOs are there. Why don't they take action? That's why foreigners find us so disgusting and unconcerned about health and sanitation. Aur yahaaN sochtaa hi kaun hai. Don't we deserve the contempt?

gaddeswarup said...

I googled 'Gandhi on cleaning toilets' and found several articles which substantiate your core assertions in this series of article. I added a few links in my blog. Keep up your good work.

Shobha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shobha said...

Hi Annie...the posts make me extremely sad. I remember, couple of years back I was a student volunteer at the World Social Forum that was held in Mumbai. I met a bunch of women scavengers there who had come to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh representing their organisation. One woman told me, "In my village, people don't talk to me properly since I pick up shit and they don't treat my daughter well either. I am an untouchable." She emphasized that she should not be treated that way and suddenly burst into tears. It was such a helpless situation. I did not how to pacify her since I don't really approve of human scavenging. But during the course of the conversation with her, I also realised that she doesn't know anything but scavenging. Also, this is her only source of income. It was such a difficult situation for me. One of the many moments in life wherein I felt completely helpless. I am sure doing this story would have emotionally drained you completely.

Sunil said...

What does it do to you - psychologically, emotionally - to have to do it, day after day?

when one sees soooooo many people around you, scarred for life, with their self-esteem beaten down (to the point where they themselves believe that they are "only worth that much", or "can only pick up shit".........I think it's the most depressing feeling possible.

Anonymous said...


R. said...

I don't know about other parts of India but here in Chennai there are still men (near naked at that) climbing down manholes to clean up any blockages. I can't think of a more horrible profession or making a human being go through that. Most of these guys are drunk because anyother way would be difficult for them to bear the episode. I would assume that the risk involved in such a thing must be the highest among any profession.

Anonymous said...

Annie, Thank you for caring enough to write about something the rest of us simply wish away. This is gut-wrenching stuff, and something that deserves to be told. You're doing a wonderful job.

kuffir said...

i agree it is an issue..a very serious one. and i'm glad you've taken it up, in a way.

jairaj said...

Hey there just found your blog. Nice. This post was very moving, also I can understand the feeling. Cheers!

Jo said...

I wasn't aware that manual scavenging exists in our country even at the so-called 21st century until I watched this documentary film (named "Shit") by a documentary film maker from Tamil Nadu which was screened in a documentary film festival in my hometown, Thrissur in Kerala. The documentary portrayed a day in the life of a woman scavenger in the TN town Madurai. If I say I was shocked, it wouldn't be dramatic. So many issues out there - Being a dalit, woman and the amount of salary they get from the corporation. The threats from the money lenders for not paying their debt is another issue. I wonder what do our MPs do with their funds. (No, I really don't wonder coz I can guess where it goes).

And guess what? There were a bunch of 'patriots' who shouted against the screening of music video from the same director, that was named "Vande Mataram - a shit version". The video shown the clips from the documentary about manual scavenging and put AR Rahman's version of Vande Mataram in the background as a reminder of how a group of people in our society are ill treated in the post-independence India. And they also filed a case against it. The case is still on. But the committee had the full support from the movie makers from various parts of India and audience during the screening.

And yes, its a bare fact that there aren't enough public toilets for women.

Annie Zaidi said...

indscribe: do mail me details (when, where etC) of the old delhi incident.

gaddeawarup: gandhi on toilets is a bit controversial. try looking up ambedkar's refutation of gandhi's stand. quite interesting, from a historical perspective. my personal view is that both men's ideas are relevant and can be implemented in conjunction.

shobha: actually, not. every time i see terrible things happen to people, and yet, they laugh, they poke fun at others and each other. they complain, they get hopeful... and in some way, they don't allow me my self-indulgent deprssion.

sunil: it is sad. but it can change.

harry, jerry: thanks you.

shivam: it is. you want to help?

kuffir: i am glad too. you take things up and you are changed, in the process.

jo: have heard a lot about that film, though have not been able to watch it. and vande matram... sigh! but what happened to that PIL?

gaddeswarup said...

I think that it is Gandhi's views on caste and the consequences that caused much frustration to Ambedkar. Gandhi changed his views, somewhat belatedly, about caste. He finally said "Caste has to go" (quoted by Nicholas Dirks in 'Castes of Mind.)

johnthebarman said...

I'm from Scotland where we take clean toilets for granted. Many are inspected every few hours. I found Annie's article interesting and moving. It should be possible to start to solve the problem in India. I wish her well.

On a personal note. I work in a hotel and the sewage system often gets blocked. If I didn't unblock it the sewage would fill the rooms.
There is a great satisfaction that few of us know in the great rush of sewage as the blockage is cleared. There would be no problem if unthinking people didn't flush rags and other unsuitable objects down toilets.

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