Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Battle Against Caste

Sunil Yadav, possesses four degrees include a master's from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and he is now pursuing an MPhil - an advanced postgraduate degree. However, Mr Yadav is still a sammarjak, a manual scavenger. A manual scavenger is someone who cleans human and animal waste from buckets or pits, and is performed by members of low-caste communities - and mostly by Dalits, also known as Untouchables. Manual scavenging has been banned in India since 2013 but it is rampant and activists say tens of thousands are involved in this demeaning work which opens them to prejudice and abuse.

The Indian Express newspaper quoted senior officials in the state government as admitting the guidelines from the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 have not been properly implemented in the state.

Milind Ranade, who is the general secretary of a Mumbai based organisation that works for rights of conservancy workers told the BBC: "The Municipal Council plays around with the definition of manual scavengers." By definition, manual scavengers use their bare hands to pick up rubbish or human faeces - and councils use this to take advantage of a technicality, Mr Ranade says. "While the workers do not use hands to pick garbage or night soil, they use a broom or a spade. There are streets where squatting is a phenomenon and the workers have to clean it. It is hazardous in any case. That's how they legalise this profession," he adds. In August 2014, rights group Human Rights Watch called on the government "to ensure that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice".

Sunil Yadav was born to the job - he simply inherited his father's job as is the norm in this profession dominated by Dalits. Many workers who have managed to educate themselves are forced to remain scavengers because they are effectively not allowed to do anything else. Yadav's degrees have not brought him a promotion from his employer, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM). At present he is forced to move garbage in the city during the night while studying for his degree during the day. All employees are allowed a leave of absence to study, but Mr Yadav says his latest request was turned down. "One of the officials told me that if he gives me a chance, he will have to give everyone a chance. He asked me what I would get out of studying. The administration treats us like slaves," Mr Yadav said.

Pramod Jadhav also works as a sweeper with the municipality and has a masters in political science. "I have tried applying for higher positions, but I have no hope. In fact, as a rule employees who complete post-graduation should get increments. My senior wrote back to me saying that it is inappropriate to give an increment to the fourth class [lower-level staff]," he told the BBC. "The word scavenger on my identity card and salary slip is the start of exploitation. It is casteist.”

"Many of our workers are not willing to leave the profession, because they are afraid to lose the government housing. About 6,000 of us live in municipal quarters," said Sunil Chauhan, president of a workers' union. Government housing they get for being in this job is a huge consideration in a city with one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world.

However, Dalit thinker and political commentator Chandra Bhan Prasad says, "Occupation is central to the caste system. If they continue to work in the municipality, they are just internalising slavery. They should separate the occupation from the caste, and desert the profession. Only that will give the system a jolt."

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