India's manual scavengers: Media must be used more effectively to spread awareness; popular faces should use influence for social cause

S Kannan

Editor's note: This is part of a seven-part series on manual scavenging in India. It examines the practice from a socio-political point of view.


Where the problem persists

The prohibition of the practice of manual scavenging remains an elusive dream in India despite the enactment of comprehensive legislation in 1993 as well as in 2013. According to a survey by the Census of India, under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), manual scavenging continues to exist in the country in various forms.

The primary reason behind the ineffectiveness of legislative provisions or rehabilitative measures is lack of awareness and the struggle to get past the stereotype associated with the occupation. To help manual scavengers overcome their struggle, the government had initiated an awareness campaign among the workers through the NCSK. Safai Karamachari Andolan national convenor Bezwada Wilson had also put in independent efforts towards this cause. The Bhim Yatra cultural forum had also participated in this campaign in 2015.

While their efforts helped get the message across about the plight of the community across India, the practice of these workers removing human excreta from dry latrines, streets, railway lines, hospitals and common toilets as well as cleaning or removing blockages from gutters, sewer lines and septic tanks with their bare hands without the use of any safety gear, is still prevalent in India.

Representational image of manual scavenging. AFP

Representational image of manual scavenging. AFP

Scores of workers often lose their lives, suffocating after inhaling the toxic fumes inside these gutters and septic tanks. But instead of appreciating their efforts, the public that employs these manual scavengers for such cleaning work humiliate them, discriminate against them, exploit them and deny them access to the very utilities they clean.

The responsibility of spreading awareness about manual scavenging does not lie with the community alone. The society at large must take up the task of spreading awareness about the occupation, about the struggle of the workers and the stereotype associated with their work, and help with their liberation to bring about an egalitarian society in India.

Means through media

The media is one of the most powerful instruments that can help spread awareness on social issues €" when used effectively €" to all sections of society. A discussion on manual scavenging on both print and visual media, which cater to different audiences, and portrayal of the struggle of workers can help people understand the seriousness of the problem.

Print media

Many activists, as well as manual scavengers themselves, depicted their lives and the discrimination they faced in the form of poems and novels.

In 2017, Joopaka Shubadra had written about her ordeal after working as a manual scavenger with the Telangana state government. Even though she had to work in this profession out of compulsion for 10 days, her family did not accept her later. They did not allow her to touch their utensils or cook, claiming she still stunk of her work.

If such is the treatment meted out to a manual scavenger by their family, the society's perception of these workers at large needs serious thought.

Among novels on this practice, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's Thottiyude Makan (1947) and Nagavalli RS Kurup's Thotti (1968) are the most significant ones that present an accurate depiction of the lives of the scavenging community and their fight to liberate themselves from the job.

Thottiyude Makan narrates the painful story of a manual scavenger who carried human waste from house to house in a basket on his head, determined to ensure that his son does not have to follow his footsteps. Chudalamuthu, the manual scavenger, is trying to educate his son Mohanan and send him to school, but Mohanan faces derogatory comments from his classmates because of his father's profession. With his mother having lost her life to cholera, Mohanan is left with no choice but to take up manual scavenging, as well. But he does on to assert his individual dignity and lead fellow scavengers to rise against oppression and prejudice.

In Thotti, the author gives a detailed description of the life of a manual scavenger. The novel was banned the year it was published in the princely state of Travancore for its "revolutionary content" as the narrative involved the romantic and sensual experiences of a worker's life depicted against the daily routine of a scavenger, focusing on the collection, transportation and disposal of filth. Thotti did inspire the thought of liberation from this occupation, but the inspiration did not convert to reality.

Furthermore, Bhasha Singh's Unseen: The Truth about India's Manual Scavengers, published in 2014, does a fair job of recording the disgrace, pain and social exclusion that manual scavengers experience on a daily basis.

While books, novels and poems do have an impact, print media has the limitation of reaching only the interested groups and literate population. In this context, let us observe the role of visual media.

Visual media

Dramas, short films, movies and interviews fall under the visual media category.

Using this medium to spread awareness about manual scavenging, Jai Bheem Mandram had organised an event in Chennai, staging a play titled Manjal based on Singh's book. The play brought on stage the testimonies of women engaged in manual scavenging.

Moreover, there are several short films made as part of campaigning for the prohibition of manual scavenging. These include Divya Bharathi's Kakoos (2017), S Sujith's Mugamoodi (2017) and a series titled The Manual Scavengers of Mumbai.

These documentary films showed scavengers cleaning septic tanks, manholes and open drains with their bare hands as well as sweeping and picking up faeces off streets and from public toilets. They proved how hard it can be to look at human waste for a couple of hours when that's all these workers see for hours on end, sometimes dying on the job.

The films also slammed the stereotypes associated with manhole workers. While their screening in theatres faced opposition, they were finally posted online to spread awareness.

So far, no feature film has been made entirely with a manual scavenger's life as the main theme, but only with the issue highlighted in passing. Tamil movie Thimiru Pudichavan (2018), directed by Ganesha, depicted the stereotype associated with manual scavenging. The film showed the procedure to be followed before entering a manhole €" first lighting a fire in the manhole and then removing the blockage. The movie also brings to light the fact that any authority in public service can help remove a manhole blockage.

If better-known celebrities take up roles that highlight such social issues, they can reach  a larger section of population.

Movies can cover a number of aspects to spread knowledge about the manual scavenging community at large. These should include the following:

- Scavenging is not a caste-based occupation; though mostly associated with Dalits, people from many communities are involved in it. - The construction of dry latrines is prohibited in India, and engaging or forcing people to clean them is a serious offence. - Manual scavenger working at railway platforms go through a different kind of struggle altogether. - Manholes and septic tanks must be cleaned only with the use of machines manned by trained licence-holders.

Interviews in which celebrities support the cause of prohibiting this demeaning practice can also play a significant role. For instance, Amir Khan highlighted manual scavenging on his show Satyameva Jayate; activist Bezwada Wilson's TV show; interviews of directors such as Vetrimaaran, Pa Ranjith and Ram, as well actors Sathyaraj and Vivek and political leaders. These videos can help spread the word on social media.

What needs to be done?

Efforts of government organisation Safai Karamchari Andolan, Jai Bheem Mandram and other activist bodies help spread awareness about manual scavenging, but the stereotype associated with the profession needs even more prominence to inspire outrage and action against the occupation. If the various forms of manual scavenging are better highlighted before the society, it can help bring out positive change.

The author is an assistant professor at ICFAI Law School in Hyderabad

Also See: India's manual scavengers: Ugly truths of unsanitary sanitation work an open secret, law needs better enforcement

India's manual scavengers: Instead of focusing on 'disgusting practice', it's time to discuss worker who dies anonymously cleaning our filth

Funds for scholarships to children of manual scavengers remain under-utilised; discriminatory rules exclude sewer workers of benefits

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