news Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 05:30
“The first time I started picking up excreta, I couldn’t bear the nauseating stench. My stomach churned. I was disgusted at the smell and sight of it. On numerous occasions my eyes welled up. I wondered why I was doing such a mortifying job that required me to scoop and carry the excreta of another human being. It hurt my dignity and self-esteem. But I did it anyway, because this is what we were expected to do by society.” This is what 61-year-old Narayana did for a living as a young man. Belonging to the Madiga caste, a Scheduled Caste in Karnataka, Narayana says he would “never forget” those eight months he worked as a manual scavenger. Today, Narayana is the Chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karmacharis and sits proudly in an air-conditioned office, where even people of all religion and castes speak to him with respect. A Class 10 dropout, Narayana began working as a coolie and house-help to help his family. In 1972, he became a manual scavenger in Mysuru when he was 18 years of age. He cleared the excreta from railway tracks in Mysuru using a broom and flat slate, earning Rs five a day. Narayana says that manual scavengers have a short-life span and that most do not live beyond their late 40s or early 50s due to the ailments they develop working in extreme filth. He knows from experience – his parents too were manual scavengers. His father’s health started failing after 45 years of age, and passed away three years later. Similarly, his mother died of lung ailments at the age of 52. He has two brothers and three sisters. Recalling his days as a manual scavenger, Narayana says with moist eyes: “Nobody should ever do this humiliating job even in the worst days of their life.” After those hellish eight months life got slightly better for him. In 1973, he landed a job at a factory in Mysore that was slightly more “dignified”. He was in-charge of sweeping corridors and ensuring that the toilets were kept clean. He joined the factory trade union and also started a Dalit association just before the Emergency period. During the early months of Emergency, Narayana was jailed for three days for protesting against the government. During this period, he met several political leaders who were then embarking on their political careers. One of whom is present chief minister Siddaramaiah  (who too hails from Mysuru district). Narayana claims that the two went to become good friends over a period of time and that it was Siddaramaiah who nudged him towards politics. With Siddaramiah As a member of the then Janata Party, Narayana says he then decided to contest the urban local body elections for the Mandi Mohalla constituency in 1996. Even as a councillor, he continued with his job at the factory to clean the toilets for a few extra bucks, he says. Four years later, he was elected Mayor of Mysore in 2000. Even as he held the office of Mayor and now as a Chairman, his younger brother worked as a safai karamachari for 28 years and died six months ago at the age of 52. Recalling an incident, Narayana narrated that one day Siddaramaiah approached him and said, “You, your parents, your grandparents and great grandparents have been manual scavengers for several generations. Your father ran behind elephants and horses, with a bucket in one hand and broom in another clearing their excreta when they marched during a procession. Now you have an opportunity to ride the same horse, with pride and dignity wearing the ceremonial gown and peta (headgear) in all its grandeur. Don’t be foolish to lose this opportunity because you are scared.” Narayana riding a horse at the Mysore Dasara celebrations The Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karmacharis is a statutory body and activists say Narayana is playing an active role in bringing about a change. "We have filed many complaints with the commission, and the Chairman has been acting on them. The government needs to notify the rules for the commission and also give it more teeth," says Clifton Rozario from Alternate Law Forum.  According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census – 2011, with over 15,000 manual scavengers in rural parts of the State, Karnataka is amongst top five states with highest number of manual scavengers.