The Story of Manual Scavenging

Asisranjan Sengupta

After releasing a documentary exposing in vivid detail the daily lives of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, 26-year-old filmmaker Divya Bharathi has been slapped with criminal charges, including cyber terrorism.

"Kakkoos," a nearly two-hour documentary, shows how countless sanitation workers remain engaged in the ancient, caste-based practice of removal and disposal of human excrement using bare hands and feet. The Hindu caste system traditionally relegated the work to those considered "outcastes" and consequently treated them as untouchables. Bharathi believes more than 200,000 people are currently engaged in manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu alone.

On August 3, Divya Bharathi was charged by Madurai police with violating Indian Penal Codes Section 153 A and Section 505 (l)(b) as well as the Information Technology Act (2006) Section 66F. The first two laws prohibit "promoting enmity between different groups... on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever" and publishing statements "with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility". The third law prohibits cyber terrorism.

Charges were filed after complaints by Dr Krishnasamy, a wealthy political leader and former member of Tamil Nadu's Legislative Assembly. "In my documentary, I had listed 10 castes, including Pallar, whose members are involved in manual scavenging," explained Bharathi. "It upset K Krishnasamy of Puthiya Tamilugam, mainly representing the Scheduled Caste (SC) Dalit subgroup Pallar. He was upset that his caste was named. Krishnasamy has moved ahead economically and socially and he thinks it is damaging for this reputation".

"'Kakkoos' reveals the miserable condition of these poor souls who are forced into this life of slavery", said Bhajan Singh, Founding Director of Organization for Minorities of India. "Yet instead of being offended by the reality of the suffering of the oppressed, powerful people have taken offense at the documentation of the truth of the ground realities. Divya is a courageous young woman who deserves our praise and our support".

Bharathi has also endured a wave of abuse. ''My phone number was made public on Facebook and other social media," she said on August 7. "After this public threat, I received around 2000 calls abusing and threatening to rape and kill me." She blames the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for instigating both the abuse and the criminal charges, linking Krishnasamy to BJP president Amit Shah. "[Krishnasamy] emerged as a Dalit leader but now is an ally of BJP," said Bharathi. He welcomed the beef ban... and held a meeting welcoming Amit Shah in Madurai. It is a well-organised political attack by the BJP by using Krishnasamy".

In a video posted to Facebook on August 3, the young filmmaker stated: "Caste system should be annihilated as Ambedkar told...The BJP, which supports caste, is bringing the fake cases against me.... I request all to raise your voice against these regressive forces".

"Kakkoos" has faced strong opposition since its release in February 2017. Film screenings in Tamil Nadu have been repeatedly blocked by the state government; according to Bharathi, the government of neighboring Kerala has even acted to prevent screenings as far away as Delhi. Screenings were cancelled, reported Bharathi, "on grounds that it would become a law and order issue".

"Rather than acknowledging the problem of manual scavenging and working to correct it, the Indian State is focused on concealing it by brushing it under the rug and gagging anyone who talks about it", said Pieter Friedrich, an analyst of South Asian Affairs. "Divya Bharathi's experience is a horrifying reminder that not only is caste a very current-issue, but that Indian citizens lack protection of other very basic human rights such as freedom of speech. The State should never possess the power to censor a film—especially an offensive film. Of course, in this case, the only reason the film is offensive is because it shows the truth about how people are being oppressed by the government with total impunity".

India's 2011 census documented 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across the country. According to government figures, the practice was most common in Maharashtra, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradcsh, Tripura and Karnataka. Various laws at state and national levels have addressed the ongoing practice of manual scavenging. Most notably, the Indian Parliament passed "The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013". However, implementation of the laws is severely lacking. According to Bharathi: "Neither the central government nor the state government is interested in rehabilitating manual scavengers.... In my film, I have proved that all sanitary workers are manual scavengers".

In "Kakkoos," Advocate Saravanan stated: "The 2013 act that bans humans cleaning human s**t says that 44 safety tools are to be provided to the workers. Of these 44, do you know what our workers have?" The film then cuts to a montage of over a dozen workers explaining: "They have given us nothing. Not even gloves". Earlier in the film, describing his job duties, a worker said: "Last week, we went into the sewage canal, with slime till our neck. We cleaned with our hands only". Another worker stated: "Gloves, boots are all there safely in the office. They are not given to us. If we ask, they will dismiss us".

Interviewed by Bharathi, social activist Padam Narayanan explained the municipal selection process for sanitation workers: "When the Chennai Metro Water hires people... when they come for job selection, first they have to remove all their clothes, with just a loin around the waste. Then they have to drink alcohol. Then they will be sent inside the sewage ditches by hanging on a rope. When that person is inside, the others outside will count.... Those people who can hold their breath for 3 to 4 minutes will be selected. Others are not qualified.... In no other part of the world, you would have ever seen such recruitment method".

"Manual scavenging is a scourge on Indian society", remarked Friedrich as he emphasized the widespread extent of the practice. "This is not an issue of a few people being caught up in an obsolete method of sanitation. As 'Kakkoos' shows, employment of people as manual scavengers is common practice by the sanitation departments of some of the largest cities in Tamil Nadu. The sanitation methodology is inseparably connected to the belief in the caste system - as workers in the film testify, safety equipment is available and yet denied to them. These oppressed people are intentionally, deliberately kept as so-called 'Untouchables' by compelling them to work in dangerous, filthy conditions".

Vol. 50, No.8, Aug 27 - Sep 2, 2017