Safai Karmcharis and the alternatives for their betterment

 Dr Hemangi Kadlak in Conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Dr. Hemangi Kadlak is a native of Maharashtra, India. She did her Ph.D. from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The Ph.D. topic was “Interface of Caste and Occupation: Case Studies of Children of Safai Karmacharis in Higher Education in Mumbai.”  She also holds an MPhil degree in Social Work from Bishop Heber College, Tiruchirappalli, in Tamilnadu, under Bharatidasan University on the topic “Status of Scavenger’s Children in Tiruchirappalli-  An Empirical Study.” She obtained her Masters in Social Work (MSW) from Bharati Vidyapeeth, Pune and her MSW research topic was “The Study of School Drop-out Girls in Slum- Pune City.” She has worked with different NGOs, as a visiting faculty at Amity University, Mumbai and SNDT University, Mumbai, She presented the research papers in different conferences conducted in India and abroad. She has been widely published in various national and international journals on the issues of sanitation workers and the youth belonging to the community. Dr. Hemangi founded an NGO, Infinidea Foundation, which works with disadvantaged children and youth by focusing on education and livelihood issues. Her main areas of interest include caste, women, children, youth, education, and leadership. In this conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, she shares her ideas, vision and passion about the current state of affairs in our society and the alternative available particularly to the youths.

Congratulations Dr Hemangi Kadlak,  for completing your Ph D which is on the Safai Karmchari women. Could you share with us what it was and what have been your findings?

Thank you for your wishes. My Ph.D. topic is how the work of the safai-karmachari parents affects their children, mostly education and overall personality. I wrote a research paper on women safaikarmachari, which is now for study in IIM-Ahmedabad. My Ph.D. topic findings are the work of the parents of safaikarmachari effect on their children’s psychology, education, economic condition, and overall personality.

You spend a considerable time in Trichy working with the community and also pursuing your M.Phil. How different is the situation in Tamilnadu in comparison to your state.

The conditions in Trichy are very pathetic, worse than that of Safai karmcharis in Mumbai. I found more problems related to their basic needs. That apart, addiction among the safaikarmcharis was also a serious issue but at the same time, I could find first generation highly educated youth too.

What challenges did you face in your education field and how you handled them?

If I start from my childhood, the biggest problem was that no one was there in my house who could teach me or guide me. There was financial problem too but as I took education in a low socio-economic profile school so fees were manageable for my parents. In school, I wanted to study and get good marks, but no one was there too who could guide; therefore, most of the time, I used to get fewer marks, or sometimes I used to fail in the tests.

How much credit do you give to your parents in your success so far?

Whatever I am today, it is because of them. My father has been my best friend since childhood as he always used to motivate me to study high and pay back to society. My mother is uneducated, but still, she had the aspiration that her children should study high. I never realized that I am a girl. I enjoyed freedom in all senses, like to have my own independent opinion and to express it. I could sense that I was always taking part in all decisions of my family. But when I cleared 10th grade, my father was reluctant to send me to the normal college.

 Can you share with us about your parents?

Yes, sure. My father worked as safai karmchari but retired now.  He is a 7th-grade school dropout, and my mother is a homemaker. We (children) taught her to sign in the Marathi language. My paternal grand-parents were agricultural labour and very poor. My grandfather was illiterate, but my grandmother could read. My maternal grandfather died when my mother was hardly 3 years and my grandmother was agricultural labour and illiterate. Both my mother and father’s side were agricultural labourers and lived in acute poverty.

Finances are the biggest concern for any budding youth when he or she pursues the higher studies or technical courses. You must have faced that. How did you overcome the hurdles?

As I informed earlier that schooling was at government schools so there was not much burden. At graduation level too, the fee was not much, hardly Rupees thirteen, because I was in the humanities. I used to get a scholarship during graduation time. During my Master’s time, I did face the financial problem more because at that time, I used to live in the hostel, and managing regular expenses was tough.

 How difficult is it for a girl and that from a swachchakar community i.e. community of sanitation workers, when she steps out or get quality education or is successful?

Yes, it is very challenging, not for girls, but for boys, when you don’t have any guidance, nobody at home to teach you, and you don’t have tuition. As I told you, my parents never made me realize that I am a girl. We had such a wonderful environment at home that my father wanted me to join the army; the difference between girls and boys never happened. I was the decision-maker in my family as my father had a lot of confidence in me, and he always relied on my opinion.

How much helpful is the academia in dealing with caste questions in the campuses. Did you face any kind of harassment or discrimination because of your caste identity?  If yes, then how did you resolve it?

Yes, discrimination or caste consciousness was at both sides. Like I was always having in my mind, I am from an oppressed caste and low-income family addition to that my father is a safaikarmchari. So a lot of things like not disclosing your identity and father identity openly. Yes, some of the incidents I could realize. I not only faced caste taunts but gender also. I always believe that once you become big then your success will answer them. Please don’t waste time dealing with it directly, but yes, sometimes I confronted them also when I realized it is beyond my limit to tolerate.

 What are the biggest challenges before Swachchakar communities and what do you suggest they do to overcome it?

The biggest challenge is this work is going to the next generation. This should not happen, and because of that, their generations are involved in this work.  To stop this generational work we need to provide quality education as well as financial support to the community. We also need to create the proper environment for them as that remains the only solution.

What is your suggestion to Swachchakar community families, youths and girls for their advancement and progress?

Concentrate on your development, and this will happen when you acquire quality education. Make yourself financially strong; learn Phule-Ambedkarite ideology which will give a different look to your life and payback to your community, then slowly your community will come out from this heinous, generational old caste-based occupation.

 How should Ambedkarites and other social organisations address this issue?

They should take the safaikarmachari agenda on priority basis.

 What concrete step should the government do to uplift the community? Do you support separate quota for them?

The government should put this agenda on a priority first. Yes, these people should have a separate quota in education and white-collar employment. It doesn’t mean that I am seeking quota within quota. I am seeking a separate reservation for them outside SC quota.

What is your future plan now after your Ph.D is completed. You have an organisation too. Can you share with us your mission vision?

After my Ph. D, I am searching for a job as an assistant professor or in a research organization. Let’s see. Yes, I have started an organization called the ‘Infinidea Foundation. It is a brainchild of my Ph.D. work. We work on education and livelihood and now thinking of adding health also into it.

 How much have Buddhism and Ambedkarism contributed in building up your confidence and growth?

I am a product of a mixture of Buddhism and Ambedkarism. I started Anapansati from my 7th grade and Vipassana from the age of 17 (both are the forms of meditation). My whole argument and research on caste, occupation, and education are derived from Phule-Ambedkar ideology.

  • Term Swachchakar is used by the community traditionally engaged in Sanitation work and now officially called as Safai Karmcharis but the difference between the two is that while a Safai karmchari these days can also come from non Swachchkar communities and hence important to make a distinction.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity



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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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