Monday, June 06, 2005

The Scavenger's Son

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know how to react 'are they men too?'...?? Thottiyute makan thottiya thaan irukkanuma - then what hope does education have? I have not read Pillai's story but I have read Harsh Mander's account of Narayanamma - a scavenger in Anantpur who fought for the community to be accepted as 'humans' - have you read the book - 'Unheard Voices: Stories Of Forgotten Lives'?

Sunil said...

I've been wanting to read that book.....but the UW library copy has been missing for a few months. So i've placed a request for the book, and hope it shows up sometime.
Somehow, I constantly feel education in India is failing in its basic

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sunil, what can I say. So I won't. I'll leave your post to speak for itself.

Come to Bombay, I'll let you borrow my copy of Mander's book. You and Charu, have you read his other book, "The RIpped Chest", about public policy in India and how it has perpetuated poverty? A good companion to Unheard Voices.

As for education, actually I believe less and less all this is a function of education (or the lack of it). Societal attitudes are resistant to the best efforts at education.

uma said...

thoughtful post. horrible society that lets this happen.

Anonymous said...

sunil, for most of the not-haves in India, education is not just about education or learning (if it is for anyone at all) but a step ahead in life - a ladder - an escape route - and I see society / public policy as having failed if education fails to deliver this...

Sunil said...

Charu....I agree with you completely. For the poor and oppressed, education is a way out of the quagmire. But Education also must have a second component. It must ensure that a person receiving it comes out with the ability to think independently, respect other opinions, understand social responsibility, and (atleast for me) believe in human dignity. If that hasn't been obtained, it is a failed education.

Dilip, Charu, it's amazing how this just mentioned Unheard voices, and i said i had put in a request for it. I just got an email saying my copy is ready for pick up :-))
I'll put in a request for "ripped chest" as well. Amazing...these large university libraries.

Anonymous said...

I agree sunil, ideally education must make a person come out "better" for having been thru the process - better judgment, better analytical ability. ideally. but that's a higher order need :) - I have linked to this post and blogged about some people I met long ago who believe that education is the 'way out' for them...
and dilip, are you in the market for lending books or is this offer open only to sunil?
and do read about harsh mander too...

Amrit said...

Education is an awakening, and that is why the Indian politicians try their best to keep its dissemination at the minimal level. And even in the name of education, a survile class is nurtured that quietly goes on living without asking for much.

I used to live in such a locality where the urinals were manually cleaned. The stench around that area used to be horrible. You really need dead senses to enter the chambers and take the stuff out.

Abolition of such an abhorrent occupation has to work two ways. Even people who employ scavengers should be severely dealt with.

But then, I think it is a much bigger issue.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Charu, I am certainly in the market for lending books, but you have to bribe as Sunil did.

Kiran said...

Rightly said. The state cannot change it. But I am skeptical that education can do it either in India. So it boils down to collective action. The State, concerned citizens, the education system - together it might just work.

Sunil said...

Kiran.....I agree with you completely.

Charu.....I think Dilip is a typical bibliophile who doesn't want to lose his collection to raiders. He makes the offer to me knowing well that I am a few thousand miles away. You on the other hand........:-)))))

pennathur said...


There is a lot you have written about that needs to be commented on. Manual scavenging is something all Indians must be ashamed of. Our failure to abolish the practice (or the impostion) ranks as our greatest failure.
Thakazhi's story tells you something about the structure of oppression. In a well off state like Kerala scavenging is such a mean occupation that only scavengers from outside can do the job - there are no Malayalis available for the task. In Pakistan around the time of independence large numbers of scavengers - or safai karamcharis - in the larger cities made ready to move out to India. Jinnah is reported to have persuaded many of them in person to stay back for if they hadn't no one one else would have been ready to take their place. Jinnah's appeal was roundly criticised for its hypocisy. Bal Thackeray penned a series of cartoons on the subject in those days and mercilessly poked fun at Jinnah's pretensions to libralism. Thackeray's father as you would know was a pioneering social reformer. To this day scavenging (or more elegantly janitoring) continues to remain the preserve of Pakistan's underclass some of whom have since become Christian.
The few Muslim majority towns I have visited in TN all employ Dalit scavengers.

Education hasn't changed our values and even if we might sympathise with our wretched brothers and sisters we haven't done as much as someone like Gandhi did. Gandhi being distrustful of modernism in general believed that for India and Indians to get rid of their discriminatory attitudes would have to work with their hands to realise the dignity of labor. Read Arun Gandhi's account of his experiences at Sabarmati when all resdents had to take turns to clean the dry latrines. Gandhi wanted India's politicians to live an exemplary life and wanted them among other things to clean their own toilet box.

Why does manual scavenging continue to exist? Is it the structure of society or public expenditure that sustains the practice? Are we spending so little on sanitation that we must employ 1000s of people to manually clean public conveniences. Are the people employed in this profession being physically prevented from abandoning their jobs and moving on to something else? Vijay Prashad's dissertation on the Balmikis of Delhi might offer some information on the subject. He has lived among them.
In our times Dr.Bindeswari Pathak who has established the Sulabh Shauchalaya foundation to construct paid conveniences has probably relieved safai karmacharis of their drudgery but I am not sure how much he has managed to change our attitudes towards the practice. I wonder what obstacles he has faced in his mission. The silence of many contemporary writers on Pathak and his work is surprising.

Sunil said...

Pennathur (are you Dr. P. Gautam at Anna univ, CBT's cousin by any chance? He was my advisor many years ago)......those are superb points you bring up. Thank you for your comments.

Why does manual scavenging continue to exist? Is it the structure of society or public expenditure that sustains the practice? Are we spending so little on sanitation that we must employ 1000s of people to manually clean public conveniences....

I think it is all of this and more. And this has an inherently close relationship with the survival of the caste system to this date. Gandhiji (though much reviled by many today) really believed in eradicating this practice, and lead by example "My experiments with truth..." has been a book that I hold close to my heart.

And I think Dr. Pathak is an incredible pioneer......and his Sulab shauchalas have done more for eradicating this practice than any other.......I would recommend reading this article about him

pennathur said...


Yes I am Gautam's cousin - we share a family name and much affection for each other - but little else! He belongs to the bright end of my family while I belong to the 'other side'.

I have read about Dr.Pathak at It is a good thing that his business model is being widely adopted. Here again the Gandhian way of tackling a problem has proven the most successful. Ambedkar for all his intellectualism (I deeply admire him for that and believe him to be the greates humanist of our times) either never wrote about how to change the living conditions of people or probably was a prisoner of his own thinking. He criticised Gandhi for his sentimentality and obscurantism but himself was not successful at changing people's minds. Gandhi broke several barriers. Firstly by treating tabooed bodily functions as ordinary activities he rid people of their inhibitions. And secondly by leading by example as no one else has ever done - You must be the change you want to bring about - he ruled out any compromise on action. And then his legendary patience and persuasiveness - he could out-argue anyone.

Anonymous said...

reminded me of The untouchable by Mulkraj anand

read it eons back
if memory serves me right
its about a sweeper boy whose dad cleans the dry latrines
and the book ends with a speech by gandhi

i remember there was a lot of discussion about the way Mulkraj ended the book

time to read it again and the other books you all have mentioned above


Anonymous said...

Good Discussion.
But how we can eliminate this?
Education sure is a way out.
But Society as a whole has to work to eradicate this.

Anonymous said...

The problem is mainly because of lack of education.To eliminate this problem is giving education to all.Let us pray a world of such would come.