If the state is guilty of not eliminating the manual scavenging despite a law, we are very much its partners in crime.

Children of indignity Deaths of manual scavengers are murders by society and we ignore it
Voices Opinion Tuesday, April 05, 2016 - 08:21

Eighty deaths and counting in two decades is too small a number to trouble a soul otherwise engaged in heated political debates or deep conversations about the next superstar. In a state obsessed with its politics and cinema, manual scavenging and deaths caused by it is ‘just another news’ - sometimes not even relevant enough to be carried in the mainstream media.

On an otherwise eventful day with survivors from Fukushima, I was troubled by Facebook posts of Divya Bharathi – a Madurai based activist and documentary film-maker who is currently working on a film on manual scavenging. She had posted a series of status messages on the death of two north Indian workers in a paper mill at Sathur allegedly due to asphyxiation while cleaning the septic tanks.

Within a week, another 44-year-old person – P Babu - dies of asphyxiation when trying to clear the septic tank of a retired policeman.

Not so long ago, four workers had died trying to clean the septic tank of the famous Thalaipaakattu hotel in Chennai. One of them was a driver. The other one was married for just three months. The gut-wrenching sight of Saravanan’s very young wife beating her chest and crying her heart out continues to haunt me. “They were so much in love,” her sister had told me.

Babu, the only breadwinner of the family, has made his eldest son study B.Com. When in Kannagi Nagar to witness the funeral of the four men who died in the restaurant, most of us were surprised by a large turn-out of students. One of them told us the son of one of the deceased was their classmate at Madras Christian College.

Like many of us, the men who entered into the manholes knowing full well they are risking their lives, had dreams to live. They were perhaps hoping that their sons and daughters would grow up to work in a more dignified atmosphere and give them the much needed redemption. Every time they went into a septic tank, they were probably thinking of their child’s school and the fees they might have to pay the next quarter.  

Yet the deaths did nothing to the collective conscience of the civil society.  Manual scavenging continues, unabated, triggering no sense of shame to any party involved.

I cannot help think of the times my neighbors would effortlessly call a ‘plumber’ from the local slum to clean their septic tanks whenever their toilets stunk. I cannot help think of the innumerable times I would have crossed a person entering a manhole without the slightest tinge of guilt. Anybody crossing by would only think ‘it was his job to do so’.

Why do we still call them deaths? If honor killings are rightly called ‘arrogant caste killings’ (as has now been popularized in Tamil media since there is nothing honorable about the killings), what are septic tank deaths?

What is honorable about having a person of a particular caste go down a manhole to release the blocks or remove sewerage with his bare hands? Or about asking a person from the ‘slum’ to clean a septic tank without giving him protective gear?

If this is not murder, what else is?

And these murders leave all our hands stained with blood. When we walk away knowing full well that the person entering the manhole is not protected enough; knowing full well that we are demeaning a person by his caste when asking him to clean our septic tanks.

If the state is guilty of not eliminating the manual scavenging despite a law in place, we are very much its partners in crime.

And why should deaths alone trigger our sense of latent conscience?

Manual scavenging is inhuman, even otherwise. Where is the dignity of labor for those handling the waste with their bare hands? What is the level of humanness in making them do a work we would consider abhorrent? What makes them less human than we are?

Manual scavenging might not shock us as much as the 2002 Thinniyam incident did – where Dalits were forced to eat human excreta by members of dominant caste. But it is no less a crime.

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