Margaret Jeoji hails from a dalit Christian family in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, a state where the local media are all mouth-pieces of political parties, where the upper caste refuses to let go of its orthodoxy and where the women have been suppressed in the name of tradition. Margaret is a staunch human rights activist and feminist who has been working…
Dalits work in dangerous, undignified conditions to clean sewage in Trichy, Tamil Nadu
About The Video: The city of Trichy, Tamil Nadu has laid the Uyyakondan canal to waste. The embankments of the canal are lined with plastic bags, human excreta, bodies of dead animals and other organic and chemical waste secreted by the city as so much unwanted sewage. When the collective mess raises an almighty stink and threatens to become a public nuisance, the city corporation calls on its sweepers who are forced to clean the canal equipped with nothing more than their bare hands and a rudimentary stick for prodding through the collected waste.
The sweepers maintain that their jobs do not require them to clear out the canal and that they are pressurized into doing it by the authorities. They are not given basic safety equipment likes masks or boots but are expected to dive into the murky waters. They are prone to insect bites, snake bites, skin ailments, gastro-entitis, parasitic infections and other dangerous and life threatening situations but the corporation health commissioner refuses to give them any kind of free or subsidised treatment for the risks they take on while doing their work.
The sweepers of Trichy all belong to the dalit community. Society conceives of sweeping and cleaning sewage as a hereditary profession reserved for dalits. The conditions that they work in are the manifestations of caste oppression and discrimination within contemporary socio-economic systems. For the most underprivileged communities in the country very little has changed for over hundreds of years. Circa 2012, they are still doing the dirty work that nobody else will volunteer for. They are made to compensate with health and life for everybody else’s idea of a clean city.
The Community Correspondent says: IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent Margaret Joeji lives close to the Uyyakondan Canal. For many years she has seen the sweepers toiling among the inhuman, undignified conditions in the canal. “As a dalit, it is a sight that hurts and angers me,” says Margaret. “It angers me that every time there is a carcass floating in the canal water you can just call the corporation who will send an unfortunate human being to clean it up with his bare hands. It is offensive, it is illegal and it is unacceptable.”
“The profession of a sweeper is like quicksand for the dalit community. It is not just the dalits that have to be rehabilitated but the profession of the ‘sweeper’. If safety equipment, machines and health benefits are provided and the cities upgrade to a modern drainage system instead of just directly dumping all the waste into the nearest water body, not just the danger to life but even the stigma of the profession will be reduced.”
The Right of the People: The Government passed the The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993. However the limited and narrow definition of ‘manual scavenging’ within the Act which limited the term to cleaners of dry latrines and open toilets provided a loophole that the government itself has since been exploiting. The law has only been adopted by 16 states. The public sector in India employs the majority of over one million manual scavengers in India of which 95% are women.
The government has also launched ambitious and expensive rehabilitation schemes for sanitation workers but the implementation of these schemes have failed miserably. The government actively denies the existence of the oppression rather than acknowledge and treat it as a major human rights violation occurring everyday in one of the largest democracies in the world.
Call to Action: The sweepers and sanitation workers must be provided with health benefits and safety equipment.The stigma of caste attached to the profession must be dispelled. The workers must be given a chance to rehabilitate themselves and choose other forms of employment.
"If you want to learn how clean and modern a city is, don’t look at the streets and buildings. Study its sewers."