Women wait for liberation from manual scavenging in Sonadih Village, Ghazipur
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
After years of delaying tactics, the government of India is coming with a new act on manual scavenging and their rehabilitation. Every year the government tried to provide us fictitious data about the number of manual scavengers in the country. The states have lacked in both vision and commitment to eliminate manual scavenging. The civil society also failed to raise this issue to a new level and work as change makers. We are discussing too much on the technicality of the issue and not on the complete elimination of manual scavenging from our minds too. It is tragic that the inhuman practice still continues in a state like Uttar-Pradesh despite all talks of so called political empowerment.
There are numerous villages and towns where this criminal inhuman practice is still prevalent. Today, we are talking about Village Sonhadi which comes under block Bhanvarkol of District Gazipur in Uttar-Pradesh. Ghazipur is on the bank of river Ganga and is about 2 hour drive from Varanasi city. From Ghazipur city, a bumpy ride of about 35 kilometer towards Bihar is Sonadih, a village dominated by the Bhoomihar community, known for its powerful political nexus and control over land.
Sonadih has a population of over 6500 people. All the villages in Uttar-Pradesh are now developing into another hell, in the form of unorganized and chaotic towns. Sonadih is no exception. With land prices soaring in, people are developing new clusters with out any planning. Since, they do not feel that planning is needed for villages hence the chaos is more visible. Uttar-Pradesh shamelessly does not have a proper sewerage system. Urban towns are virtually dying under their own weight. Eastern Uttar-Pradesh has the worst case scenario as far as manual scavenging is concern. Despite the so called flush toilets, it is still the scavenger community individuals who have to ‘enter’ into the dark deep pits to clean them. And the reports from various parts of the country suggest how many of the sweepers usually die when they go in and face the huge blast from the gas chamber which is stinking gas smell.
The story in Sonadhih is pathetic and distressing to our conscience. As usual the bastee of the scavengers is the last one in the village virtually unapproachable during the rains due to the water logging. Those who clean the other people’s locations remain amidst the dirtiest track. It was raining and therefore impossible to reach the houses. Women are forced to go out to clean the latrines. The island of mud and dirt are actually island of exploitation and ignorance. A typical village culture is visible here in Sonadih where even a family of a Dom, another scheduled castes refuses to sit with that belong to manual scavenging family. The reason is that every one of the oppressed wants to enjoy that small ‘acceptance’ over the other.
This village dominated by the Bhoomihars, a powerful community of Eastern Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar which is landed. There are however, a number of other communities Bramins, Rajbhars, Yadavas, Chamars, Muslims, Dhobi and Doms. Each community lives in its own nation with only relationship through communication and no further physical relations and social relationship. There is no chance of the communities touching each other or speaking to each other for a social cause.
Ten families of Rawat community (the scavenger community in the region) have over 60 members. Since the village does not have the flush latrine system, the duty of the community is to clean the toilets every morning. It is tragic that none of the community members have even a single unit land for living, leave alone for agricultural work.
The population of 10 scavenger family is 63 some years back but now many of them are migrating to cities in search of jobs particularly in the municipalities in Mughalsarai, Varansi and Ghazipur. This village never adopted the people who clean it. It was a cantonment area in the past. Two Muslim landlords actually brought these people here to do the ‘work’ in this village. They arranged some land for these people to live which was not even ½ acre of land for these 10 families. This 8 manda land was distributed among equally among the Rawat community and Rajbhar and other communities. The Gram Sabha has not taken into account the growing problems of the community. They are just used for their work and contemptuously looked down upon. There is no question of asking for any advice when they are not even the citizens of the village. Any threat of not doing the work would ultimately throw the people away from the land they are living. None of them have any land in their name.
Paradoxically, all scavenger families have Above the Poverty Line (APL) ration cards and cannot purchase anything from the subsidized shops. Due to complete landlessness, they cannot even get the Indira Awas Yojana, a faltering housing scheme by the government of India, where you will not get any grant from the government unless you have the land to construct the dwelling for yourself. Hopefully, the new census survey and BPL list would take them into account.
There is a primary school in this village. For higher studies students must go to the Avdhahi. Avdhahi is about 2 km far from the village. Though there is well connected road network to the village yet it is still a remote place as far as the linkage to the scavenger community is concern. There is a complete lack of health services here and the village does not even have a dispensary. For any eventuality, the villagers have to take transportation to Mohammdabad.
Though there are substantial number of other communities but do not care much for any one. Our trip to village generated much enthusiasm and suspicion. Many of the upper castes who had these women as cleaning their toilets were not only apprehensive but blamed the victims themselves. The problem is that the dependency of the community on the upper castes is so much that they feel threatened with the idea of any change. If they do not do the work, they would be displaced. People like us who pretend to work for the community come and go but they have to live along with the people. At the time, when even migration won’t help, the community women are just clueless.
More than this, they do not get anything in cash. Their work is compensated with about 5 kilogram of rice or wheat at the year end per family, left over food every day and special alms during the festivities like Dipawali, Dussehra, and Holi. One can imagine how difficult it is to live this life of indignity by begging daily. While preaching is easy the fact is civil society has failed to do anything for them. Just by ‘advocacy’ will not resolve the crisis of the community. The pain of the community is further aggravated by some ignorant voices who blame the community for not ‘following’ the path of Baba Saheb Ambedkar. However, our aim is not to go in debate at the moment. We just wanted to narrate the plight of the community in a village where they are suffering and we need to develop an idea.
Some of the village elders suggested that not all are in a position to develop flush toilets but an initiative has to be made. Since the sanitation programmes are mostly in the urban areas hence it is important to focus in the villages which remain uncontrolled and unplanned. Any case of the scavenging is normally dealt with the Nagar Palikas but who is accountable for scavenging in the villages and what is the government alternative to it ?
As mentioned many times in our reports, the scavenging profession has been totally feminized. Over the years, the male folks not only try to get jobs in the Nagarpalikas i.e. municipalities but also migrate to big cities in search of jobs. For women, the job is doubly tiring as they not only have to take care of the family but also face the numerous indignities of life. In the absence of resources they end up in begging and doing whatever is demanded from them. Sudhani Devi is mother of one son and two daughters. She not only doing manual scavenging in the village Sonadih but also in other villages with in the vicinity of 5 kilometers. She cleans a total of 15 toilets.
Munni is taking care of 16 families in Rasada and Sonadih villages. A mother of three, she starts her day with early morning at six to finish the target by 10. Similarly, Manju work in 15 houses in three villages. A mother of six children, she says that they have no future. They are completely disgruntled and do not know what to do. Most of them do not have ration card.
Now the question arises whether they can do any other work. The problem is that the Panchayat does not even think of them. They are not the citizen of the village. What ever land they have acquired is basically on the mercy of the village and any challenge to the supremacy of the villagers would virtually seal their fate and throw them on the streets. It is because of this reason, every one of them said that the situation is fine and that they are not being forced to do the work. One should not be surprised that no woman would ever admit that she is doing the work at some body’s compulsion but her own fate has allowed her to do such an atrocious job. Now, whether they say or not that the work is a compulsion, the fact is we all, as a nation, as a civil society, as a village or even as a Dalit Rights or human rights defender have failed. We blame the victims themselves. Preach them like ‘leave this work’ asking them to die rather than to live. Now such preaching is easier but the enormous social mental block needs to be broken. How would that be broken?
What could be the solution for a fair rehabilitation of these people? They are completely landless and do not have their own home which could be termed as decent. That should be the first task.
Two, the problem is their landlessness. If they are provided some agricultural land, one is hopeful that they would be able to some work and earn something.
Three, Let the village Panchayat build some community toilets at the village and hand over the management of them to the women. A biogas plant can be developed and cooking gas as well as electricity can be provided to the subscribers in the village.
And most importantly access to health services as well as education for children is essential for their development. That brings us to important issue of elimination of caste bias from our minds. Unless we resolve to do that untouchability and manual scavenging will to continue. We continue to shame ourselves that those who do this work do not even get a payment for their work. That is a perfect example of a racist society which still believes in slavery. Unless manual scavenging and untouchability goes India’s claim to have a civilization will always be questioned and scrutinized.