Sensationalised stories, hackneyed tu-tu-main-main games, and vulgar social media outbursts clutter our mind every second of the day. Provocative utterances and actions from politicians keep us in a state of reactive anger. Television channels play their part with boxed shouting matches that make it nearly impossible for us to pay attention to many violent practices that are everyday happenings in our society.
Amidst this pandemonium, one humanitarian campaign has been largely ignored by ‘mainstream media’. Led by Ramon Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson, the Safai Karmachari Andolan and its partners have been travelling across the country with its #Action2022 campaign against sewer and septic tank deaths. It is disgraceful that, in 2022, this fundamental right to live with dignity is denied to so many. We flaunt our achievements in aerospace and announce missions to the Moon and Mars while, on terra firma, citizens are forced to enter septic tanks to clean our shit.
In response to the writ petition filed by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgement in 2014. Addressing many issues with regard to this inhuman practice, the rehabilitation of those who have been forced to engage in this dehumanising occupation and compensation for those who have lost family members, the pronouncement was a stinging acknowledgement of this casteist reality, which governments have found insidious ways to hide or deny.
Despite this judgement, and the preceding Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, manual scavenging remains real. Governments across the country have done little to stop it. In today’s contract-based manual scavenging profession, recruitment is still done according to caste. Kakoos, Divya Bharati’s 2017 documentary film, exposed the grotesque nature of this practice and the failure of the Tamil Nadu State to address this issue.
People like me, endowed with caste, economic and cultural privilege, remain disgusted by its practice and empathise with those who are compelled to enter drains for a living, but have done little to stop this ugliness. We read short reports in newspapers about ‘accidental’ deaths, express momentary sadness among ourselves, and move on. We cover our mouth and noses and watch from the sidelines while our co-citizens enter septic tanks, a practice that has been force-normalised on them through centuries of abase oppression.
Here is an uncomfortable story narrated to me by a friend. His family had moved into an independent house on the outskirts of the city. Little did they know that, in those parts, every house had a septic tank that needed emptying every few months. Some searching on Google and a few phone calls later, he found a vendor who said he had a machine to do the job. The man brought a motorised cleaning tanker that sucked all the excreta dumped in the tank using a long hose pipe. As his elderly assistant and he prepped for the cleaning, my friend’s wife noticed that they were using their bare hands to handle the dirty hose pipe. She handed them gloves and insisted they wear it, which they did reluctantly, complaining that they were slippery. All the filth was pumped out in half an hour and the tank was empty.
Close to the septic tank was a wash basin that constantly overflowed. My friend was convinced that its pipeline had wrongly been connected to the septic tank and that this was the cause of the trouble. As he continued complaining about this issue, the assistant used a ladder and lowered himself into the empty septic tank. It all happened very fast, but the fact remains that my privileged friend just watched it unfold. He hesitated to stop the individual. As the person took another step down that ladder, he mumbled a soft dissent under his breath, but did not bring the house down in protest or forcibly stop him.
The assistant went further down, unperturbed. The manager watched from above, casually giving instructions. As he moved to the lowest step on the ladder, it suddenly dawned on my friend that this was wrong. He raised his voice and demanded that the man come out immediately and forced him to do so. How much of this late reaction was a realisation of the wrong or a mixture of guilt and fear is hard to say. But the act was already done.
Complaining about the plumbing issue was not a benign act. Everyone knew that the only way to check the issue was by entering that septic tank. My friend just did not say it overtly, but the implied suggestion was “Can you go in and check?” They needed a job done; a plumbing leak fixed! That was all that mattered. The fact that the elderly person went in ‘voluntarily’ allowed the old casteist excuse -- “I did not ask him to go in” -- to subconsciously kick in. People of privilege had participated in a casteist, inhuman, dangerous practice. In the physical and emotional humiliation of an individual.
Narrating this incident to me years later was probably cathartic for my friend. But his family and he went on with their lives after some passing sorrow. That individual, on the other hand, remains stuck in the social cesspool we have created. Honesty that comes with no consequences is a privilege. Honesty cannot be a self-cleansing escape shaft. It needs to be driven by uncompromising, unselfish reflection. For the lives of those who are compelled to take up manual scavenging to change, it is not enough to put new systems in place. We, the privileged, have to watch ourselves acutely, and hold ourselves responsible for our every offensive action, and inaction.