"At the end of shooting the film for around 20 days, my tongue became very dry. I was reminded of my school years during which I lived in a government hostel in Madurai district. At that time, I would often hold my bladder as the washrooms used to be in such extremely unhygienic condition," reveals Amudhan R P, the acclaimed film maker who made the award winning 25-minute documentary titled Shit (Pee in Tamil).

Shit traces the daily routine of Mariammal, a sanitary worker employed by the Madurai Municipal Corporation to clean human faeces. Women like her are referred to as manual scavengers and are most often Dalits from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds. The candour of Mariammal in the film may evoke a few laughs, but the work that people like her have to do for a living is certainly not amusing. And, although the film was made in 2003, it is still very relevant and continues to be screened and discussed across the country, despite legislative attempts to put an end to the practice of manual scavenging.

The film depicts in a hard hitting manner the tale of Mariammal, who begins her day scraping up human and animal excreta with the aid of ash that she sprays over the faeces and a sharp edged metallic sheet. At times, Mariammal uses a broom, a plastic dust tray or a large aluminium utensil to collect the waste. She does not wear gloves, a mask or an apron or cover her nose, eyes or feet. That is because the municipal body does not provide any protective gear.

A still from the movie "Shit" (from Youtube)

Mariammal, who appears to be in her fifties, shares that sanitary workers are provided with sanitary powder only on occasions when a minister is supposed to visit the area. She adds in the documentary: "I have been doing this job for 25 years. In spite of repeated requests to my supervisor, my work has not been changed although he has promised to do that many times. I take home 3000 rupees per month after the mandatory deductions.” Apart from that, she does not get any healthcare or other benefits.

Systemic ills

Do people like Mariammal continue to remain in such jobs even today because they are unlettered, poor and old and may not be able to secure alternative employment? Or is it that they do not apply enough pressure on society in general, and their employers in particular, who believe that people, specifically women, from their caste and class are the only ones who must continue to perform such inhuman tasks?

Mariammal’s husband was a driver with the Madurai Municipal Corporation - an alcoholic, who passed away because of excessive drinking. She has six sons, all working as daily wage labourers. Two of them are sanitary workers - unsurprisingly, this ‘occupation’ tends to be passed down generations.

The poor woman had taken a loan of 10000 rupees from a Thevar moneylender to meet the expenses of the wedding of her second son. Thevars constitute a dominant caste in that community, mostly comprising credit providers, known for squeezing high interest out of borrowers. Mariammal, too, has to repay her loan every month with a monthly interest payment of 1000 rupees.

At the time that this documentary was made, the Madurai Municipal Corporation had 2700 full time sanitary workers, of whom 90 per cent were Dalits and 35 per cent women. Most of them suffer from malaria, asthma, cholera or cancer.

For a long time, Mariammal had been urging young children not to use the streets as their toilet. She feels that elders in the family must tell their wards not to do that. At times, even adult residents defecate on the roads although public washrooms are available and people are aware of their presence. However, not much came out of Mariammal’s censure, given the socio-cultural challenge in making people use washrooms, whether they were private or public.

Of course, it is a well-established fact that the absence of toilets in homes is still a big reason behind people defecating on roads. Public restrooms are insufficient, absent, open only at specific times or frequently not fit to be used, notwithstanding the Nirmal Gram Yojana of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Water and Sanitary Hygiene (WASH) campaign promoted by the Ministry of Rural Development and Panchayati RajI.

Even where public washrooms are available and open, they are dirty and stinking most of the time and usually do not have water, doors or light. All this makes them unsafe, especially for women and girls.

The absence of safe and hygienic toilets has even been identified as one of the main reasons for girls, particularly in their teens, to drop out of institutions of education. Transgenders find it even worse as they are typically not allowed access to restrooms meant for men or women. However, none of these can be a justification for excreting on the streets or open spaces with the expectation that someone else would clear their waste after them.

The law versus reality

Manual scavenging was prohibited by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993. However, the Act, which was under the purview of the Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, did not mandate the rehabilitation of manual scavengers or make the state governments liable for the existence of dry latrines. 

Exactly two decades later, a series of Public Interest Litigations were filedby the Safaikarmachari Andolan (SKA) - a national movement committed to the total eradication of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of all scavengers into dignified occupations, concerned individuals and groups. This eventually resulted in the enactment of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013.

While the new Act formulated by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment considers the human rights and dignity of manual scavengers, it is apparently not explicit on the aspects of accountability and implementation of rehabilitation measures. Shockingly, the 2013 Act also accepts the provision of protective gear to sanitary workers as a criterion to let them continue the activity without being categorised as manual scavengers.

In reality, even the construction or existence of dry latrines is considered illegal under the 1993 Act itself. On the other hand, it is well known that Indian Railways is one of the largest employers of sanitary workers, most of whom belong to socio-economically marginalised communities and are primarily Dalits. This is owing to the type of washrooms that exist in train coaches, which lead to the dropping of human excreta through a hole onto the tracks or ground below a running or stationary train. What is that but a shameful example of the violation of a law enacted by the state, by an agency of the state itself?

Further, investigative reports have highlighted that many sanitary workers have been hired under contract over the last decade by private companies such as Eureka Forbes, under its Clean Train Station scheme.

In October 2012, the Delhi High Court ordered the Ministry of Railways to submit a detailed plan to eliminate manual scavenging by November that year but the outcome of the court’s intervention is yet unclear.

The practice is, in fact, more widespread now than many would think. “Most people preach compassion and care for others inside religious institutions. However, in reality, even they do not support the people who are opposed to the practice of manual scavenging that is prevalent in many government and private organisations,” says Anupama, a community leader and member of the Karnataka Dalit Mahila Vedike (Karnataka Dalit Women's Forum), a state level network of individuals and organizations that advocates for the human rights of Dalit women and youth. Anupama has approached a couple of priests associated with religious institutions in her area to publicly oppose the practice of manual scavenging but is disappointed to have received no affirmative response from them.

Interestingly, Anupama, is employed as a clerk by the Indian Railways in Hubli district of Karnataka and says she has successfully raised her voice against the prevalence of manual scavenging at her workplace, with courage and commitment. She has protested the practice of manual scavenging through the employees union and also ensured that there is no need for the services of manual scavengers within the local offices of the Railways. Encouragingly, she has not faced any backlash from her employer, immediate supervisor or colleagues.

However, at a broader, higher level, there does not seem to be any commitment by the Indian Railways to change the basic design of its washrooms, although it did supposedly introduce different types of mechanisms to control the discharge of waste in coaches between 2006 and 2011.

Lives less human

Given the prevailing scenario, sanitary workers traditionally belonging to the Valmiki, Bhangi, Choora, Mehatar, Madiga and other sub-castes among Dalits continue to lead lives of indignity and misery. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India declared in 2006 that an estimated 7.73 lakh manual scavengers were present in the country although the SKA and others estimate the number to be 13 lakh. Out of them, apparently, 3.42 lakh remain to be rehabilitated, that is, provided with alternative livelihoods.

According to the SKA, constant denial of the existence of dry latrines or the practice of manual scavenging by various state governments makes it difficult to determine the actual number of people in this abhorrent occupation.

Ironically, while society does not cringe at the perpetuation of such an abominable practice, it cannot treat these workers with the least bit of dignity. Even to this day, they are not allowed to enter the households that use their services, which are frequently performed at night or early in the morning, almost invisible to other people.

Sewage drain cleaners and pourakarmikas also fall under the category of sanitary workers. The former category again consists mainly of unwealthy, Dalit men who risk their lives to clean sewage drains. There have been several instances of such workers losing their lives due to inhalation of toxic gases like methane and asphyxiation.

In the dance ballet Unsuni (Unheard), inspired by stories in the book Unheard Voices by former bureaucrat Harsh Mander, and choreographed by renowned activist and dancer Mallika Sarabhai, the dancer in the role of a safaikarmachari (sanitary worker) poignantly portrays how the revolting stench and sight of human and animal excreta compel her to take a strong narcotic so that she can sleep everyday.

In contrast to the above, pourakarmikas clean roads, collect and segregate garbage especially in urban, peri-urban and suburban areas. But they too face caste, class and gender-based barriers and prejudices and struggle with health, finance and livelihood issues along with challenges unique to their profession. For example, they are often forced to touch or come in physical contact with hazardous materials like nickel and cadmium from batteries, glass, ammonia and other gases, rotten or stale edible substances, sanitary towels, human and animal hair, soiled clothes etc.

Many of them are employed on a contract basis for low wages which are often not disbursed in a regular manner. Like manual scavengers, they too have to brace for lack of dignity and respect both from their supervisors and the people whose surroundings they strive to keep clean.

“If we ask for water to drink, we are offered a mug that is kept in the bathroom. We do not find it easy to answer the call of nature. All this happens even if we are dressed well. We continue to receive low, irregular wages even though we have appealed to the government. Our poverty and lack of skills compel us to take up additional employment as janitors in offices or domestic workers in order to support our families. Such jobs are rarely secure and do not provide healthcare or social security benefits or sufficient paid leave“, says Chaya Mary (name changed), a pourakarmika in Bangalore.

A Dalit, Chaya migrated from the semi-arid Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh a few years ago with her casual labourer husband and two young children in a quest for a better life. Sadly, however, the lives of persons like Chaya can improve only with a fundamental transformation in society and the state, which still seems a long way off.