Muzzled by sympathy

manual scavenging1

Manual scavenging is constantly on news often not so much for diverse reasons, but typically due to the primitive barbaric practice of selectively forcing the employed workforce, who are exclusively from the lowest social categories, into sewer underworlds to de-clog and to offer freedom to the choked sewers by the uninterrupted passage of sewerage. The menace of manual scavenging is prohibited by the Act of the Parliament as well as banned by the Supreme Court of India with the active pronouncement of various rehabilitation measures. Very frequently we read chilling news reports of workers’ deaths in manholes and deep inside septic tanks due to asphyxiation as sewage workers seldom have safety gear apart from very rudimentary implements. Although the public reaction towards a manual scavenger in a sewer is a combination of disgust, contempt, and in some instances sympathy, that is not purely because of the nature of the work s/he engaged in, but also due to the very fact that their bodies are the embodiment of rich olfactory malodorous and insalubrious sensory information of the infrastructure, the environments of their work and the inhabiting spaces embedded with. As the practice of treating all inferior castes and especially the ones engaged in menial occupations with contempt by caste Hindus is so naturalized that this epidemic is reproduced even by a few Dalits affecting the manual scavengers as worst sufferers, thus raising questions about how much impact the Dalit political movements are creating.

Besides public consumption, the employment of increased sympathetic tone by media reporting of sewer workers’ enduring battle with the sewage at the squalid subterranean work environments highlights the scope for the closure of other potential perspectives.

As a matter of fact, there is a significant spike in the reporting on manual scavenging and currently, the trend in media projections of manual scavenging follows a noticeable pattern with a few exceptions like the recent video of Mission Garima by Tata trusts. The media discourse on manual scavenging is increasingly limited to picking up the issue seriously only when a manual scavenger dies. Apart from that very rarely we also read news reports with a critical analysis on budgetary allocations, budget spends and the Swachh Bharath Abhiyan. The intense impression generated by this style of reporting (which I call as the standard template) is not detrimental as such, but over the period of time, it contributes enormously towards the stagnation of other interventions while also rapidly homogenising the already permeated emotions – Sympathy – as morally correct.

Firstly, the greatest impediment caused by this standard template is that apprehension about manual scavenging surfaces only when there are deaths of manual scavengers, thus, conveniently not engaging with the questions: politics of why only a few deaths are reported; Or, if there is no death – does it mean no manual scavenging? This in no way means that the death of a manual scavenger is not important or somebody should refrain from reporting it. Secondly, the damage this excessive obsession towards death does is to pervasively shift the focus from manual scavenger to manual scavenging leaving the former voiceless and at the same time, characterising their bodies, often the dead ones as the symbolic identity to tell the story of the caste Hindu cruelty in the 21st century India.

Perhaps, as a result of this, in the Mission Garima’s video too you don’t get to hear the voice of manual scavenger (father) but his 5th-grade son who meticulously crafts his father’s everyday occupation as the object of his poem which he recites at the poetry competition with a central theme – ‘My father runs the country’. Now, a question I would like to pose here is whether the above theme is the son’s own interpretation of the father’s everyday occupation or, someone else has shed light on the father’s work. In the video, the son, when he is all set to recite his poem, glances at his mother for a second who is sitting in one of the back rows dedicated for the parents. The brief, but rich intimate gesture between the mother and the son hints me to argue that the mother’s role in effectively curating the description of the father’s everyday occupation is crucial. With a modicum of common sense, I can firmly stress that no manual scavenger ever intends to glorify her/his occupation. We may find a few Hindu liberals who think ‘but somebody has to do it no?’ Or, a few conservatives who go to the extent to argue that ‘shit is a spiritual experience’.

Thirdly the voicelessness not only snatches the agency of a manual scavenger but also simultaneously imparts agency to others to conveniently decide the future of manual scavengers and come up with ‘solutions’ as per their past experiences while showing least interest towards the salient concerns of manual scavengers. Manual scavengers work in an extremely hazardous atmosphere with maximum risk, they are the most victimised in the Hindu caste system, they suffer enormous violence, particular the infrastructural violence so on and so forth. With a few genuine exceptions, if the attitude of standard template reinforces already forged sympathy as the legitimate emotion, it strives to make the bodies of manual scavengers, more precisely Dalit bodies as being worth as the objects to express occasional emotion – chiefly of sympathy. Also, the video which ends soon after coaxing the citizens to segregate the waste is troubling since the video makers do not believe in engaging with the pertinent questions such as: How a manual scavenger is recruited? Why modern or efficient waste management methods are absent? What is the state of the infrastructure? Rather it uses nudging phenomenon that peculiarly urges citizens to save lives of the manual scavengers with a view to protecting the dignity as if there are no other efficient modern waste management systems available. Furthermore, the conscious effort expressed in the video nonetheless is the translation of sympathy to become compassion thus purposefully evading the generational agitation of manual scavengers.

Soon, say in 5 years’ time, the son finishes his 10th standard and could be in a position to decipher the structure of entangled issues of caste and sees how difficult it is to navigate it for a liberation seeking manual scavenger. By that time he realises that genuine emotion is not to seek compassion or offer sympathy but to exhibit anger. However, his voice like many other manual scavengers, for that matter like the voice of many Dalits will be faded and muzzled by overwhelming sympathy.

Last, but not the least, yes, his father, the manual scavenger, runs the country, but the country in return scourges him to get buried deep inside the sordid environments.

Kanthi Swaroop, Ph.D. Candidate, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay Email: [email protected]




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