Somewhere in-between settling into my flat on Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in southern Delhi a thought occurred to me: Where do I deposit my trash? I looked around the complex but could not find trash receptacles.
After a few days I asked the chair of my department how the trash collection system worked. He said “oh just put it out in front of your door someone will come pick it up.” “On which days,” I asked. “On any day,” he replied.
Later that day I made my way to the campus market to buy trash bags. They were not cheap even by US standards. The next morning I left my trash outside my door and waited patiently for the system to kick in place.
An hour or later I heard a man’s voice shouting something. I don’t speak Hindi so I could not figure out what he was saying. I looked through my kitchen window and saw a man with a large sack collecting trash.
He walked up to my door and untied the black garbage bag carefully and then threw the contents into a big bag he then slung over his shoulder. He picked up my empty garbage bag and started to shout out again.
I was puzzled. Why did he empty the garbage into another bag, I thought?
I opened my door to see what he was doing. As he stopped by my neighbors I noticed that their garbage was not in bags but rather in garbage cans which he emptied into his bag.
Over the next few months I became accustomed to hearing his voice outside my door. He arrived like clockwork and went about his business without even making eye contact with anyone.
On one occasion I saw him load that big sack full of trash onto his three-wheel bicycle rickshaw and head down the street to the next block of flats. I also saw others doing the same thing. There were many women too.
Not too far from my flat was an open area where the collectors gathered. Here they emptied the trash into one big pile and then sifted through looking for food and other things of relative value.
Feral dogs stood by patiently as the collectors fed them the scraps of food they did not want.
This system is widespread in India. It is known as “manual scavenging” and it extends to a practice of manually collecting human waste from toilets across India.
80% of all ‘manual scavengers” are women.
Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, an NGO working on toilet advocacy, says that there are “half a million scavengers who still manually clean about 10 million toilets daily."
The people who do this work self-define themselves as Dalits. They are, however, more popularly known outside of India by the derogatory caste designation of “untouchables”.
Pathak says that Indian “society has kept them at the lowest level of the social hierarchy - the untouchables, the lowest among the low."
Manual scavenging was banned by the Indian government in 1993. The ban is not, however, enforced. In fact, not one case of manual scavenging has ever been prosecuted.
The caste system in India is where the focus on reform should be aimed. The government for all its stated intent has been found to be dragging its feet on dealing with the oppressions that emanate from caste.
The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (New York) says that India’s “hidden apartheid relegates Dalits, to a lifetime of segregation and abuse.” The Center also points out that India is a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and, therefore, is obligated to end caste abuse and segregation.
I intend to develop more posts on this issue in the coming weeks. The parallels between Dalit life bear more than a passing resemblance to apartheid.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohat Singh, similarly observed that “the only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid in South Africa.” Mr. Sing went on further to say that “untouchability is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on humanity.”
That it certainly is Mr. Prime Minister.
This post also appears at Indigenist Intelligence Review.