Forty-six years after India’s independence, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993. This meant that finally manual scavenging of human excreta and the operation of dry latrines would end, and finally the Dalits who had spent lifetimes carrying out this reprehensible task would be free. Yet (as this article shows) the number of manual scavengers have not decreased, but increased. There are nearly 800,000 such scavengers still in India.
In an Utopian world, an Act would be enforced by the State. But we know that India is far from Utopian, some states farther than others. Many states have not even begun to enforce the act, and politicians continue to pretend that the issue does not exist (since there are neither votes nor money in it), while night soil scavengers continue to suffer in silence.
I knew next to nothing about manual scavenging of dry latrines. Like most of us, all I had to do was flush, and presto, the toilet was spotless. On other occasions, while out on NCC camps, we would answer this call of the wild in the wild, mug and torch in hand. But once, I visited a small town where the latrine drained into a mini-septic tank. The tank happened to be horribly clogged, and a scavenger was summoned. He staggered in, drunk on cheap Indian toddy. He HAD to be intoxicated, because it was the only possible way a human being could survive the noxious and putrid tank. He had no gloves, no masks, and no protective clothing. All he had was a stick, a shovel, a mug and a bucket, with which to extract the muck. I must have been around fourteen years old then, and I ran away in disgust and shame, wanting to puke. I could not bear to watch.
A year ago, I chanced upon an English translation of Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s story “Thottiyute Makan” (Scavenger’s son) for 50 c in an used bookstore (ISBN 0-435-95085-7, Amazon link). This is the story of the scavenger Chudalamuttu. Born into a family of scavengers, he swears not to become one. Yet, upon his father’s death, he has no choice but to become one, because he is not allowed to change his profession. He struggles through life, striving to break free, and finally becomes an undertaker at a graveyard. That, to him, becomes a huge step up.
The writing is moving, even in translation.
"…..Yet deep down there was a touch of uneasiness, which showed when he asked, “Aren’t they men too? Don’t they have children and infants, Keshava Pillai”?
With an expression of amazement, Keshava Pillai asked, “Are they men too? Fine!........."
Chudalamuttu strives to keep his own beloved son away from his profession. He sends his son to school, names him Mohanan (and the people laugh when they find out that a scavenger’s son has a fancy upper caste name like Mohanan). It seems as if his son might grow up to become something else. But tragedy strikes in the form of a cholera epidemic. The inevitable happens while you fervently hope it doesn’t.
Read it if you can.