Our dirty secret: Dalits suffer more, then clean our filth

Flood ravaged Chennai 2015

Image Courtesy: PTI

Moments of crisis, it is said, bring out the best and worst in us. Six days of unrelenting rainfall in Chennai reduced this beautiful urban centre in south India to a cess pool. As reports of relief, and rehabilitation kept pouring in, the ugly schisms present in Indian society, that a modern, upwardly mobile elite sits comfortably with, raised their ugly head.
On December 7, 2015, the Hindustan Times  reported that Dalit households had been hit hardest by the torrential rainfall over the past month due to poverty and discrimination by upper caste villagers. The newspaper was quoting from a study that had surveyed 8,400 Dalit and non-Dalit families in 20 villages in the Cuddalore region – more than half of these belonged to dominant caste villagers– to find that around 90% of the houses, livestock and crops destroyed by the deluge belonged to Dalit families. The report also alleged dominant caste people blocked access to clean water and official relief measures remained concentrated in upper caste neighbourhoods that were more accessible by transport. This survey conducted by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and the Social Awareness Society for Youths (SASY), the survey said that Dalits made up the lion's share of those displaced by the floods as they lived in poorly-constructed mud houses. Of the 1,026 mud houses that collapsed, 971 belonged to Dalits and of the 311 concrete houses that were damaged, 305 belonged to Dalits, the report said. The report also found a majority of Dalit settlements were located on the fringes of the villages and much closer to dangerously-bloated water bodies.

The average distance of Dalit houses from these rivers, canals and the sea was 1.5 km. As a result of this proximity, 128 of the 146 goats killed in the survey area belonged to Dalits. All 20 cows that died belonged to Dalits and 274 of the 292 heads of poultry that drowned belonged to Dalits. In Vadakkuthurai village, dominant caste people stopped Dalits from entering their neighbourhoods to access clean water. In Alamelumangalapuram, Dalits who have never been allowed to enter upper caste areas were too scared to attend the government medical camp set up for flood victims.  The report said that most primary health centres were located in dominant caste neighbourhoods and were, on an average, three km from Dalit settlements. As a result, reaching these PHCs involved wading through flooded areas — a major risk.

The neglect was institutional, the report alleged, pointing out that visits by senior government officials were mostly to dominant caste areas and Dalits who lived in the most-inaccessible parts of villages weren't visited by any inspection team. The report also said private and government aid teams were distributing relief materials such as food and tarpaulins only to dominant caste areas that were easily accessible and located on main roads and highways.[1]

Government officials in Cuddalore district denied the facts and findings of the report stating that helping marginalised Dalit communities was considered a priority after a disaster."In times of inundation, Dalit colonies are usually more affected since they are in low-lying areas," Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Cuddalore's Monitoring Officer for Disaster Relief, said."The state government is very sensitive to the needs of Dalits. For them, we have built a temporary shelter in record time."

On the next day, December 8, 2015, the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation quoted extensively from the same report of the NCDHR and SASY.  Hundreds of poor lower-caste families who lost their homes and jobs after devastating floods swept southern India have been neglected by government relief efforts, a survey conducted by two charities has found.[2] This report had some more details. It stated that the survey polled 1,500 families in Cuddalore district, more than 40 percent of them Dalits, from Nov. 19 to 21, 2015. It found that 95 percent of damaged houses, 92 percent of livestock lost and 86 percent of crops lost belonged to Dalits. Caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist in many parts of the country and low-caste Indians still face prejudice in every sector. Aid workers say that in times of flood or drought, many Dalits do not get the same access as higher-caste Indians to emergency aid such as clean water, dry food rations or shelter.

A web platform of the Rajasthan Patrika group, CatchNews picked up the story on December 8, 2015.[3] This report detailed how the worst instead of the best surfaced in Kongarayanpalayam, people from the dominant caste blocked clean water access for the Dalits. And this was unfortunately while the world watched in awe as the people, the rest of the people in and outside Tamil Nadu pulled out all the stops to help those affected by the worst rains to hit the state in a 100 years.People opened the doors of their houses to strangers, shared food and supplies and went out of their way to rescue those stranded in the floods. However, while most of Tamil Nadu experienced these heart-warming scenes, the situation in Cuddalore – one of the state's worst affected districts – proved why true humanity may still be a distant dream. The report also explained how one of the reasons for the acute damage suffered by the schedule castes was because of where they lived: being acutely marginalised, most of them lived either on the edge or close to the river on the low-lying areas. As a result, the Dalit population in the district lack government government infrastructure – like schools and community halls – leaving villagers from Dalit communities in Vadakkuthurai, Kongarayanpalayam, Agaram and Ambedkar Nagar villages with no place to take refuge. Catchnews also reported that there were also instances where the government rescue teams failed to visit some remote Dalit villages for lack of connectivity. As a result, the Dalit families from Vadukathirumedu, Chillankuppam, Kaduvetti, Varagurpettai and Annavalli could not shifted to safer place after the huge flood hit in their villages.

In around 90 per cent of the surveyed villages, there was no adequate provision of drinking water. “A number of Dalit families did not receive any drinking water. Most of the public sources are destroyed and villagers in hamlets like Vadakkuthurai, Ennanagaram and Kongarayanpalayam had to travel miles for getting the access,” said Pandeyan from the SASY. The volunteer narrated of a chilling reminder of Munshi Premchand‘s story – the Thakur’s well. “In Kongarayanpalayam, people from the dominant caste blocked clean water access for the Dalits. This is reflective of the people’s attitude which refuse to compromise with their rusted caste-system even at the time of such hardships,” he alleged.

Everybody in Chennai has suffered equally because of the floods. But only my people will go through the extra suffering of cleaning Chennai’s rotting s**t. Why can’t the concerned citizens and celebrities who are distributing food and blankets also clean up the city?

The story was thereafter picked up by The Huffington post on December 9.
On December 11, 2015, the Hindustan Times  did a detailed follow up tracing caste based exclusion and prejudice not just to the denials in Cuddalore district as surveyed by two non-governmental organisations but to the streets of Tamila Nadu’s capital of Chennai.[4]
The newspaper reported that after front page odes to the heroes of the floods, many local newspapers in Chennai carried a small report inside on December 7 announcing that more than 2,000 sanitation workers from across Tamil Nadu had arrived in the city to clean up the mess. They had to be called in because most of Chennai’s sanitation workers hadn’t turned up to work. Most of the slums they live in are also under the dirty water.

The city has around 7,000 sanitation workers, according to R Anbuvedan, state president of the Republican Trade Union of India, which was started by BR Ambdekar. “The population of Chennai is 85 lakh, meaning one sanitation worker is cleaning the waste generated by around 1,200 people. The central government norms say that there should be three sanitary workers per thousand people,” says Anbuvelan who is also a member of the corporation’s manpower reorganizing committee.

According to the city corporation, each person in the city generates 700 grams of waste per day. Chennai generates the highest per capita garbage in the country. That’s 870 kilos of garbage per sanitary worker per day. But that’s on good, floodless days.
Says the Hindustan Times story: Under Indian law, a sanitation worker must be given gloves, masks, gumboots, towels, soap and oil. “If a sanitation worker is not given proper protective equipment, it constitutes a crime according to the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act. The act says that if they are not given protective gear, their work will amount to manual scavenging,” Anbuvedan says.

As many as 78 men from the Dindigul municipality are camping in a mariage hall in Gajalakshmi colony of Chennai. They were provided with only seven gumboots. None of them have been given gloves, masks, soap or oil.

These luxuries haven’t been granted to local sanitary workers either. “I was given gloves and chappals (not gumboots) but they don’t fit properly. It is not easy to work with ill fitting equipment,” says Kannamma, 50, a sanitary worker with the Chennai corporation. She confirms that she has cleaned human excrement with her bare hands and says, “Toilets everywhere are flooded. Half of the city is defecating in the open. And there are the dead animals.”

At the north zonal headquarters of the Chennai corporation a sanitary supervisor proudly boasts that the workers have been provided with footwear, gloves and masks. When she is persuaded to show the equipment, it turns out the gloves are made of cloth, the footwear is rubber slippers and the masks are made of a kind of sheer material. All the cops and firemen though have been given nicely fitting gumboots that stand out because of their bright yellow soles.

Only around 700 of the 7,000 sanitary workers in the city are permanent employees of the corporation and get above Rs 15,000 per month. The rest are on contract and are paid anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 290 as daily wages. No work means no pay. There are no sick leaves. “The corporation hasn’t hired permanent sanitary staff for 15 years. There is a severe manpower shortage,” says Anbuvedan.

Kannamma, whose house in the Ezhil Nagar slum is under waist-deep water, is back at work. She has been a permanent employee of the city corporation for the last eight years and is entitled to all the leaves that other government servants get. “Nobody has told me how many leaves I can take. I don’t understand these things because I am not educated. I have come to work because I don’t want my salary cut,” she says.

Here is another well known fact: all of Chennai’s and indeed all of Tamil Nadu’s sanitation workers are either Dalits or Adivasis. Most of them are from the Arundhadiyar Scheduled Caste.

“Everybody in Chennai has suffered equally because of the floods. But only my people will go through the extra suffering of cleaning Chennai’s rotting s**t. Why can’t the concerned citizens and celebrities who are distributing food and blankets also clean up the city? Why is the media only projecting them as heroes?” asks Ravichandran Bathran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study who is also from the Arundhadiyar community.

“Everybody complains of resevations in higher institutions but nobody talks about reservations in the lower institutions. In the business of cleaning s**t, there is 100% reservation for Dalits. Why don’t people from other castes join this work?” says Ravichandran.

To be fair, a handful of the citizens’ groups have picked up the broom. The Jamat-e-Islami Hind made headlines when they cleaned Hindu temples. The residents of Choolaimedu cleaned up their own trash and proudly put up photos on Facebook that were shared 10,000 times at last count. And one Tamil actor is planning to organise a team of citizens who will get down to cleaning. They are waiting for protective gear to arrive.

“They will clean the streets but will they clean the gutters? Will they get into manholes that are clogged with rubbish? Even if they do, they will surely wear all the protective equipment,” says A Narayanan, director of Change India, an NGO that works for the eradication of manual scavenging.

The first signs of an epidemic are already here. Doctors in many government hospitals in the city are confirming cases of rat fever, jaundice and mosquito-borne diseases. While there are bound to be glorious exceptions, as a rule, it will be a silent army of people, mostly belonging to one lowered caste, that will fight this danger with their bare hands.

The sanitary workers are now working in those parts of the city that have not been heavily inundated by the floods. They are waiting for the waters to subside in the worst affected areas. It may be weeks before the water recedes. By then the trash would have decomposed some more. By then most of the cops, firemen and reporters might be back to their regular beats.

The Asian age thereafter reported on the issue on December 15, 2015


[1] Dalits suffered more than others in flood-hit Cuddalore: Report


[2] Scant aid for low-caste villagers hit by Chennai floods in south India – charities




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