Dealing with death, daily

gravediggerA gravedigger is to a corpse what a mother is to a child, says Sampath, who works at the Krishnampet burial ground behind the Light House. “You have to tend to the body with great care,” he says.

Besides digging graves , their job involves building stretchers for carrying the body, preparing the pyre and clearing the remains after the body is fully burnt. They also collect ashes from the gasifiers. “We handle all kinds of corpses like old men, children, AIDS victims, dog bite deaths, suicide cases…” he says nonchalantly.

So is the job depressing?

It only seems natural when the man, with his sturdy build and rugged face says he is used to it. But further probing shows he is not completely insensitive to the gravity of death or the pain of loss others feel. He confesses that handling the burnt body of a dowry harassment victim once disturbed him a lot.

Paulraj, who works in a cemetery in Kasimedu, says visitors often cry before the graves of their beloved ones. “Two days ago, a woman who had lost her son came here and was crying bitterly. I sat by her side and tried my best to console her,” he says.

Gravedigging is a family occupation for certain communities belonging to the Scheduled Castes. “My father did it, my grandfather did it, my great grandfather did it and now I do it…” says Jayaraman, an 50-year old, who has been in the job for four decades now. Ask him if he wants his son to follow the family line and without a second thought, he declares, “No.”

Traditionally known as ‘vettiyan,’ the gravediggers working for the Chennai Corporation are now referred to as ‘mayana udavialargal’ (crematorium assistants). This was after the civic body regularised their employment in July 2007. The step has brought a visible enhancement in their self-esteem.

But not all is well. Paulraj says almost all crematorium workers are alcoholics. “They get drunk to become numb to the smell of rotting carcasses,” he says.

Also the work can be hazardous to health. Graveyard keeper Sasikumar recounts how once the body of a person with a pacemaker in his heart had burst while being burnt. He says bodies that undergo post-mortem are wrapped in thick plastic and don’t decompose when buried.

“When we dig those spots for use later, the body would not have decomposed and emits harmful gases.”

Several burial grounds in the city have vast spaces with plenty of green cover and none of their characteristic eeriness. Sampath says laughingly, “Many young people who visit the Citi Centre think the neighbouring ground is a garden and stray in. When we tell them that it is a graveyard, they get scared and run away.”

When asked if gravediggers are afraid themselves, they say no. But the Krishnampet burial ground, for one, has two dogs for protection, not from ghouls, but from miscreants.

Sampath says three months ago two men on a motorbike entered the ground and tried to bury a male baby alive.

The mouth of the baby had been stuffed with cotton, but it managed to cough and the workers were alerted. “We informed the police immediately and they took the boy away. The two men had meanwhile escaped on their bikes,” he says.

But be it day or night, gravediggers have to carry out their work. “We do have fixed working hours, but then who can predict when it is time to dig someone’s grave?” asks Sasikumar.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, dated Aug 24, 2008)

A Mosque of One’s Own

At Thandeeshwaram, a tiny village in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, Sharifa Khanam is building her dreams brick by brick. The 42-year-old social worker has initiated the construction of a mosque here for Muslim women as a symbol of their struggle for equal rights in a male-dominated society.

sharifa_khanam

The first recipient of the Durgabai Deshmukh Award instituted by the Central Social Welfare Board in 1999, Sharifa found her calling in women’s rights activism when she attended an All-India Women’s Conference in Patna in 1988. “It was a turning point in my life. I realised it was possible for women to act together to negotiate a space for themselves in society,” she said.

In 1991, she set up STEPS Women’s Development Organisation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), in Pudukottai with the help of the then District Collector Sheela Rani Chunkath. STEPS started functioning near the Pudukottai bus stand as a community welfare centre for women, but eventually it began to handle cases on behalf of battered women. In 2003, Sharifa began to organise a monthly jamaat, or congregation, for Muslim women under the banner of Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. This was meant to provide Muslim women a space for expressing themselves. And since a jamaat is traditionally attached to a mosque, Sharifa decided to erect a separate mosque for women. The mosque when complete will be fully managed by women, but will keep its door open for men, she said.

The women’s jamaat is an attempt to challenge the authority of the traditional “jamaat system” which by and large controls the social life of Muslims. Each mosque elects a group of influential men from within the community to form what is known as the pallivaasal jamaat. This group, besides managing the affairs of the mosque, would gather outside the mosque and arbitrate over community disputes. “The jamaat is more or less like a caste panchayat – functioning at the behest of powerful men,” said writer and gender rights activist V. Geetha, who has sided with Sharifa and her movement for the last two decades.

Sharifa says because the traditional jamaat has no woman representative, no one hears the woman’s version during a dispute. Often in cases like dowry harassment or domestic violence, she said, the male jamaat members refused to come to the women’s rescue.

The pallivaasal jamaat survives on chanda (commission) collected annually from the community members. Families are also expected to pay up separately for religious rituals on occasions of birth, death and marriage. Individuals and whole families could be declared outcast if they failed to pay up the commissions. According to Sharifa, jamaat members often thrust their decisions on women, threatening to “deny them a space even in the burial ground” if they failed to obey their decrees.

The women’s jamaat handles cases of marital disputes relating to dowry, divorce or domestic violence. Most women approaching Sharifa are those who have apparently been denied justice by the traditional jamaat. There are cases where women are given talaq through e-mails and telegrams and the jamaat would do nothing to condemn the man, said Sharifa. Petitions coming in occasionally from people of other communities and even men are not turned down here.

Sharifa said in the last 15 years she has handled about 10,000 petitions from Muslim women alone. Jamaat members interact with the police and lawyers to ensure speedy resolution of cases. “If the response is poor, we take to the streets,” said Sharifa.

In 2004, the intervention of women jamaat members led to the suspension of a few police officers in Annavasal town for “counselling” a rape victim rather than taking action in the case. A 12-year-old girl employed as a domestic help with a Muslim family in Chennai, Vennila was raped by her employer. The police dragged the investigation on and when repeated petitions to the police were ignored, Sharifa and other members of the jamaat staged a dharna in front of the office of the Superintendent of Police and saw to it that the culprit was brought to book.

The jamaat members are Amazonians in the real sense of the word. The 30,000 Muslim women who form her support base in Tamil Nadu today are an empowered lot. In the last 10 years, Sharifa has mobilised women in ten districts across Tamil Nadu – Trichy, Pudukottai, Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Tuticorin and Perambalur.

Women jamaat leaders in these districts travel to the Muslim residential areas to spread word about the jamaat. They also mobilise women to oppose the three dominant social evils in Muslim communities – ex parte divorces (talaq), polygamy and dowry demands during weddings.

At a women’s jamaat meeting held at the Pudukottai office of STEPS on March 26, this reporter met 60 participants who had come from all over Tamil Nadu despite the sudden rain. With their heads covered with dupatta or clad in burqas, the women gathered in a tiny hall and began the jamaat with a rendition of the Quran. Prayers done, the first topic to be discussed was the model nikahnama released recently by the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board in Lucknow. Most jamaat members felt that the new nikahnama had nothing new to offer as such and only reiterated the rights of women, such as the right to demand khula (divorce), which has been guaranteed in the Quran already. But they welcomed the move as a positive development.

Next, the jamaat heard the case of a Boushiya Begum from a nearby village who was allegedly harassed by her husband for dowry during their three years of marriage. This despite 35 sovereigns of gold and a vehicle being reportedly given as dowry to the groom at the time of the wedding.


At the Women’s jamaat, Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, reading out from the holy book. She helps other members to interpret the verses.

Boushiya’s brother Zakir Hussain told the jamaat that her husband “did not like her looks” and was demanding Rs.1 lakh to keep her. He said he had sought help from the Karambakudi jamaat, which presided over their wedding, but they refused to intervene saying it was “their family matter and they must solve it on their own”. The Karambakudi police did arrest Boushiya’s husband, but only on charges of simple hurt and criminal intimidation. No case was filed under the Dowry Prohibiton Act.

Boushiya pleaded for help as her husband had been released on bail and was threatening to separate their two-year-old son from her. Sharifa promised to take up the case with the police. This case sparked off a discussion among the women on the prevalence of dowry in Muslim communities.

Taj Begum, a jamaat member from Singampunari in Sivaganga district, said that traditional jamaats were getting a share of money from the “un-Islamic” practice. As per Islamic tradition, it is bride who is entitled to mehar (gift from the groom) and not the groom to dowry, she said. She said Muslim grooms demanded dowry ten times that of mehar offered to the girl. “And these exchanges are seldom recorded in the marriage contract or nikahnama though the rule says so,” she said.

The women’s jamaat is also demanding that women be allowed to pray in mosques, which they say is a Quranic right. Though some mosques have separate enclosures for women to pray, conservatism is keeping women from congregating in mosques for prayers. Subaitha Begum, a jamaat member from the fishing community in Tuticorin, narrated how she initiated a mosque inclusion movement for Muslim women in Thracepuram last September. On February 22, she assembled 300 women in a separate hall near the mosque for Friday prayers. She said she even managed to garner the support of a few Muslim men in the area who let their wives participate in the mass prayer meet.

“The local jamaat was furious with me for encouraging women to participate in the mass prayer. On jumma day, they even announced over mike from the mosque that Muslim women from ‘respectable families’ ought not to side with me,” said Subaitha. “But after the separate prayer meet for women was held successfully the Thracepuram mosque is considering giving space for women to pray inside the mosque.”

M. Janakam, district co-ordinator of the jamaat from Dindigul, said that when she took up the case of a Muslim woman who was being denied divorce by her husband, the traditional jamaat discouraged her saying, “Don’t go to the women’s jamaat, we will solve your problem.” She said it hurt the ego of traditional jamaat members when the women’s jamaat successfully intervened in a case.

Mehr-un-Nisa, who is well-versed in the Quran and Arabic, pointed out that not all decrees of the traditional jamaat enjoyed religious sanction. “Islam is a progressive religion that guarantees several rights to its women,” she said. “And because the Quran is taught in Arabic, most women do not understand its meaning despite knowing it by heart.” During jamaat meetings, Mehr-un-Nisa helps other women interpret the meaning of Quranic verses.

Quoting from the Quran, she listed the various rights guaranteed to women in it. These include rights to demand a share in ancestral property; demand mehar; seek khula (divorce); choose a husband; approve a groom before marriage; raise children; and speak and participate in community activities. But in practice, the traditional jamaat often denied these rights to women, she said. Mehr-un-Nisa is also compiling a half-yearly journal, Pengal Jamaat, on behalf of STEPS to propagate the message of women’s rights.

The story of Sharifa and the thousands of women who come seeking help at her doorstep is also the story of how Muslim women are marginalised in society. They are faced with the double jeopardy of being “Muslim” and “women”. “In India, political parties woo Muslim voters but when it comes to the welfare of the community, especially its women, they turn their backs,” said Sharifa.

As V. Geetha points out, pitching Muslim women’s issues around personal law has given the impression that issues to do with personal law are pertinent only to the minorities. “We assume that Hindus are default democratic citizens and all others are bound by their religious lives. The flip side of thinking this way is that we do not see Muslims as developmental subjects – as subjects of state policy to do with poverty, employment, malnutrition, housing concerns and so on,” she told Frontline.

Sharifa said such prejudice against Muslims reflected, for instance, in their difficulty to obtain loans. Though the State government had set apart funds for providing loans to the minorities, much of it remained unutilised, she said. To fill this gap, Sharifa is planning to start a jamaat bank, which will provide women with low-interest loans to help them start a small business or such like.

Faced with prejudices both within and outside the community, the emergence of the Muslim women’s jamaat is “one of the most creative things to have happened in Indian feminism,” Geetha said. “The jamaat takes the feminist battle away from these familiar forums to those that are not known to many of us: community lives and organisations. In doing so, it carries the struggle for gender justice to where it is often denied: the family, kin network, the larger community world…,” she added.

But as Frontline gathered the opinions of popular representatives of the Muslim community on the women’s jamaat, it emerged that the movement does not enjoy much support. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) President M.H. Jawaharullah dismissed Sharifa and her women’s jamaat as being a “fringe group thriving on media hype”. “It is unfair for Sharifa and STEPS to take away credit for work that other Muslim organisations are doing as well,” he said, adding that the TMMK too runs a “reconciliation centre” for settling marital disputes between Muslim couples.

His party, now an ally of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led coalition government in Tamil Nadu, extended full support to the pallivaasal jamaat system because it provides an “alternative forum to settle disputes at a time when the courts and police stations are already overburdened”. He said the pallivaasal jamaat had an important role in making sure “discipline prevailed in society”.

Concerning women’s rights to pray within the mosque, he said while Islam gave equal rights to women to pray besides men, some Ulemas at home were “extra-conscious” about this. “I cannot use the word conservatism, but yes, some Ulemas fear that letting women pray in mosques may lead to untoward incidents,” he said.

Eminent lawyer Bader Sayeed and Member of the Legislative Assembly of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam concurred that the jamaat upheld patriarchal norms of living for Muslim women. Her personal experience in dealing with jamaat leaders during her tenure as Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board had sensitised her to the issue, she said.

She said a few months ago she filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court against members of the jamaat in Ammapettai, Thanjavur, on the charges of excommunicating a Muslim woman and torturing her. The jamaat had not satisfactorily settled a divorce case between the woman and her husband and when she approached the court the jamaat members took offence. They retaliated by treating her like an outcast, said Bader Sayeed. “When her husband died, the jamaat did not send a priest to perform the funeral and it forcefully separated her daughter from her,” she said. “In such cases confrontation is necessary.”

Bader Sayeed said she supported the view that women leaders should be appointed in traditional jamaats. She prefers judicial settlement of Muslim divorces and registration of marriages, and is also for codifying Muslim law so that the judiciary can resolve disputes easily. “But I disapprove of the idea of a separate women’s jamaat as that would mean alienating women from the mainstream,” she said. Her argument was that if Sharifa built a mosque for women, men in the community would only be too happy to exclude women, asking them to go and pray there.

Leading Muslim scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, however, extended full support to the women’s jamaat. He said Islam allowed its followers to interpret the Quran and live their life accordingly. “So, if women wish to build a mosque for themselves, religion gives them the right to do so,” he said. He also sought speedy implementation of the recommendations of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee submitted to the Indian government in 2006 so that socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India could improve.

As of today, Sharifa’s dream mosque stands incomplete – only a few bricks have been put together and the iron rods jutting out of the concrete base rust among wild bushes at the construction site. But Sharifa is hopeful. “I will erect the structure in another two years,” she said.

There has been no dearth of media coverage for the mosque project and in the last four years Sharifa’s work has drawn attention from India and abroad. But as Sharifa points out, “This has brought much appreciation, but little in terms of support.” Global Fund for Women, a United States-based non-profit organisation, offered Sharifa help initially but later shied away from supporting a “Muslim religious cause”.

What Sharifa and her women need now is support, both moral and financial. “I need at least Rs.40 lakh to finish the mosque and a steady flow of funds is necessary to keep the movement alive.” But fund-raising has been difficult. “I have already put in all my money in buying the land for the mosque and setting up a foundation,” she said. “The last thing I want to do is squeeze the poor Muslim women coming to me to donate for the cause.”

“So how are you going to manage to build the mosque for women?” I ask. Sharifa does not answer. She only turns to the women attending the jamaat meeting and says, “The cause of the women’s jamaat and women’s mosque should not die with me. You, my women, must keep it alive.” And the women nod their heads in unison.

(Originally published in Frontline in Apr, 2008)

The birdwatcher

bar headed geese
Bar-headed geese. Picture credit: Flickr

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies. Dropping their wings, they landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

Continue reading “The birdwatcher”

Every refugee longs to return home

The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfeRR) has completed 25 years of work among Sri Lankan refugees in the State who narrowly escaped from the ethnic war in the island nation.

Its founder, S.C. Chandrahasan spoke to Vidya Venkat about the hopes of the refugees and the future he envisions for the Tamils, now that the military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has concluded.

SC Chandrahasan
S.C. Chandrahasan. Picture credit: The Hindu

The memory of his father, Thanthai Chelvanayagam, sitting on the verandah of their ancestral home in Tellipalai in northern Sri Lanka, is still vivid in the memory of Mr. Chandrahasan. Living as a refugee in Tamil Nadu since August 1983, he says,

“I am told that place where my house once stood is a jungle now. Branches of trees have invaded our rooms through its open windows…”

Running OfeRR out of the terrace of a building in Egmore, he says he retained the makeshift roof here to remind himself that he is a refugee after all and one day he must move.

Being on the wrong side of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE forced this lawyer and social activist to flee the island nation.

Continue reading “Every refugee longs to return home”

Sewer Rats

Imagine a man plunging into a 20-foot-deep sewer through its narrow mouth, holding his breath for over 30 seconds, scooping the filth inside with his bare hands or a shovel, and emerging from it, covered in muck. The only precaution he takes is to light a match over the hole sometimes, to detect the presence of toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide or methane. Often he has simply no clue as to what lies deep inside the hole.

sewer cleaner

I have seen sanitation workers belonging to civic agencies in Chennai clean clogged sewers bare-bodied, with just a strip of cloth covering their loins. Their only lifeline is a belt, secured around the waist and attached to a rope held by someone outside the hole. Quite often the rope comes in handy to pull out the dead body, in case the diver dies of asphyxiation.

Official records of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Chennai Metrowater) confirm 17 worker deaths since 2003. But if the statistics of earlier years are taken into account, as also the number of sanitation workers from private agencies who have died, the figure would be much higher. And it would run into several thousands if you consider the country as a whole.

Workers who manage to stay alive aren’t in a much better position. They are vulnerable to respiratory ailments and skin infections. Contract sewer cleaner Munusamy draws attention to the raw open wounds on his limbs. He often finds broken pieces of glass and used syringes floating about in the sewer he cleans. He says they sometimes have to pick at used sanitary napkins and condoms with their bare hands. This exposes them to a range of diseases, hepatitis being just one.

Social activist A Narayanan, in a petition filed in the Madras High Court in 2008, sought a ban on manual sewer cleaning. He argued that it was akin to manual scavenging which was banned through legislation in 1993. In November 2008, the Madras High Court gave a landmark judgment instructing civic authorities not to let humans enter sewer holes.

Despite the court ruling, however, in January 2009, Ettaiyappan, a sanitation worker at Chennai Metrowater, died whilst cleaning a sewer. The 50-year-old worker did not use any safety equipment and died of asphyxiation. According to eyewitnesses, fire and rescue service personnel had a difficult time retrieving his body as the manhole was “very deep”.

Ettaiyappan’s death exposed the negligent attitude of the civic agency towards worker safety. As a punitive measure, Chennai Metrowater suspended the assistant engineer who was supposed to have supervised the cleaning operation.

S Purushothaman, a trade unionist organising sanitation workers, says field staff at Metrowater continue to justify the use of humans to clean sewers as machines cannot clear blocks properly. “After the court ruling, the civic engineers started making sewer cleaners work clandestinely in the evenings so that no one would notice them.” Indeed, Ettaiyappan died after sundown.

All sanitation workers who do this kind of work are dalits. Scheduled caste/scheduled tribe workers account for most, if not all, jobs involving contact with human refuse — sewer cleaning, clearing of municipal solid waste, and scavenging. In his affidavit, Narayanan mentions how these workers often drink alcohol before entering a manhole in order to cope with the stench of human waste.

Narayanan cited the Adi Dravidar and tribal welfare department as one of the respondents in his affidavit. “But the court neither summoned the department for a response, nor issued any specific orders to them calling for rehabilitation of sewerage workers,” he says.

Occupational health and safety is afforded the least priority by both civic authorities and workers, say lawyers N John Selvaraj and Beulah Selvaraj who regularly fight cases on behalf of sanitation workers and also head the Conservancy Workers Union. They say many of the city corporation’s scavengers suffer from leptospirosis (rat fever) because garbage bins are infested with rodents and they do not wear gloves.

According to them, civic agencies began contracting out sanitation and sewerage work after they were forced to cut administrative costs in order to repay the World Bank for infrastructure projects funded by it since 1996. “Once the civic agencies gave away work on contract, they did not bother to look into the working conditions,” John Selvaraj says. The death of a female worker due to poor safety arrangements, at the site of the Pallavaram sewerage scheme implemented by Chennai Metrowater, is well documented. The scheme was part of the World Bank-funded Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project.

Occupational health and safety has rarely been the subject of litigation concerning sanitation workers. Most deal with appointments, reinstatement of expelled workers, etc.

Lawyers say dalit workers are largely unaware of their rights in this regard, and being poor they readily agree to take up any job they are offered regardless of the risks involved.

Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, there is a provision that allows workers to claim compensation for occupational hazards. But, according to advocate D Nagasaila of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the onus of proof in this case is on the worker. “Do the poor dalit workers have medical records to prove that their disease is due to the nature of their occupation? No. So they stand to get nothing in compensation,” she says.

Civic agencies anywhere in the state do not conduct regular medical camps or health check-ups for their workers. Sources at the Chennai Corporation say they conduct regular eye check-ups for some employees. Recently, the corporation introduced a health insurance scheme for its employees, but even this money can be used only for surgeries at major hospitals, a corporation employee said. Also, as contract workers they are not entitled to any of the medical benefits that permanent workers enjoy.

Chennai Metrowater, for its part, has introduced an accident insurance scheme for its contract workers. This, after two workers died of asphyxiation at the Kodungaiyur sewage pumping station in Chennai, in 2007. Several clauses relating to worker safety and provision of equipment are mentioned in the contract but these remain largely on paper, lawyers say.

Occupational health and safety has mostly been in the realm of industry and the organised workforce in India. This perhaps explains why there is no data available on the occupational health and safety of sanitation workers, most of whom are in the informal sector and employed on contract.

Earlier Supreme Court judgments have laid down that the right to health and medical assistance to protect workers whilst in service or after their retirement is a fundamental right, under Article 21. This, when read with Articles 39 (e), 41, 43, 48A and related articles are intended to make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful.

A tale of two towns

“When labour is available cheap, there is little value attached to the worker’s life,” Selvaraj notes wryly. But, he adds, this discrimination must be viewed in the context of history.

During British rule, erstwhile Madras attracted a lot of dalit labourers. The city was divided into a distinct ‘white town’ and ‘black town’. ‘White town’ was developed to cater to the needs of the British and their Indian servants. Civic agencies were set up to create amenities for them, and the Brahmins and other educated classes, being upwardly mobile, took up white-collar jobs in the British regime.

‘Black town’ consisted of labourers, mainly dalits and indigenous people who set up amenities for the wealthy people. For the residents of ‘black town’, the jobs provided by the British brought in some income security. They saw these jobs as empowering rather than as a caste scourge.

Even today a large number of people belonging to the Adi-Andhra community (a scheduled caste) can be found employed in the Chennai Corporation. Their ancestors migrated to Chennai to work under the British.

Thus, the practice of dalits and tribals seeking employment in civic agencies in the city became the norm. It fell in line with the already existing caste system which reserved ‘dirty’ jobs for dalits.

Mechanisation as liberation

Today, the civic authorities have taken up mechanisation of sanitation work. But the process will take time, as dredging machines and other cleaning equipment are expensive and workers have to be trained to operate them. As previous Metrowater Managing Director Sunil Paliwal points out, the entire work culture of the agency will have to change. Supervisors, engineers and civic contractors will not alter their attitude in just a couple of days, he says.

Civil society intervention

Janodayam, a non-governmental organisation started in 1983 by G Israel, is one example of a successful civil society intervention to ensure the wellbeing of dalit workers. Hailing from a family of Adi-Andhra scavengers, Israel realised at a young age that sanitation workers had “appointments but no retirement”. This was because most of them died well before the age of retirement. He is now campaigning to dissuade members of his community from taking up sanitation work. “Today, many Adi-Andhra people are studying and doing teaching or clerical jobs. I have also managed to lobby for 50 seats for Adi-Andhra students in Loyola College where I studied,” he says.

Israel organised the scavenger community to fight for their employment rights. He was also instrumental in securing a 3% sub-quota, within the existing quota for scheduled castes, for the Arunthathiyars — the group name for less dominant dalit communities such as Chakkiliyar, Madhari, Thoti, Pagadai, Arunthathiyar and Adi-Andhra.

Challenges remain

For those who continue to do scavenging work, Israel says, the health challenges remain as very few sanitation workers use protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gumboots while they work. He says even when workers are provided these things they tend not to use them as they are used to working with their bare hands. It is evident that there has been no effort at all to sensitise workers about safeguarding their health and wellbeing.

The challenges in rural areas are bigger as municipalities and panchayats are ill-equipped to improve infrastructure or invest in cleaning equipment, as in cities. Also, here the caste system is even more rigid and the progress of dalits suppressed by other caste Hindus.

Revathy, a member of the Arunthathiyars Human Rights Forum, conducted a health camp last year for sanitation workers in Sathyamangalam. She found that most manual scavengers suffered diseases like tuberculosis, and many women had gynaecological problems. Respiratory diseases were also common as was alcoholism both amongst men and women. Health camps are not enough to address these issues; work conditions must improve, she says.

Revathy says banning manual scavenging work only threatens the livelihood of workers. That is why workers are afraid to speak up against the unhealthy practice. “I have seen women sweepers who would like to change to a more dignified profession but hold on to their jobs as they often have no other source of income,” she says.

Political parties that claim to represent the cause of oppressed dalits have a long way to go. D Ravikumar, MLA of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, says candidly: “Parties like mine are not in a position to mobilise dalits on rights-based issues like health. It is easier to mobilise people on atrocities, for instance, but areas like health or education need a lot of ground work. Unfortunately, nobody, not even we, have the necessary data. The dalits who are taking up ‘dirty’ jobs today are completely marginalised.”

(Vidya Venkat is a Chennai-based journalist with The Hindu. Her series of stories on the plight of manual sewer cleaners in the city was admitted as evidence in the Madras High Court, among others, when a PIL sought a ban on men entering sewer holes. Taking cognisance of human rights violations, the court banned manual sewer cleaning in November 2008)

(Originally published in Agenda, a development journal brought out by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies, Pune in April, 2009. See link)