When Dalits across Gujarat vowed to never touch cow carcasses as part of protests against caste atrocities last month, it grabbed national headlines with experts predicting mounds of rotting animal flesh piled on roads.
Gujarat has nearly 10 million cows and some 2,000 of them die every day. Experts feared that the non-disposal of carcasses could result in an outbreak of deadly diseases.
On July 31 at a convention in Ahmedabad, Dalits vowed to give up several traditional occupations such as carcass removal and skinning of cows, which many saw as demeaning. They reiterated their pledge at a rally in Una on August 15.
But almost a month later, officials say the threat of not removing carcasses – made in protest against the flogging of four Dalit men by alleged cow protectors for skinning dead cattle -- has had no impact on the ground.
They credit a time-tested system of carcass disposal for keeping the state clear of rotting bovine flesh.
According to them, the eight municipal corporations, 33 district panchayats and 249 taluka panchayats of the state either have employees or contractors to dispose garbage and carcasses. These bodies have a collective workforce of about 30,000 who continue to do the “dirty job”.
Many Dalits working in these municipalities say their livelihood is tied to the job and they cannot let go of it.
“I earn Rs 22,500 per month. I understand the problem my community raised but if I will give up my job, how would I support my family?” said Jitesh Solanki, an employee of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
The state also has 285 panjarapols (cow shelters) with some 200,000 cows. But they too have disposal teams or contractors hired on an annual basis carrying out the task.
“For a few days after the Una incident, our teams which had some Dalits were reluctant to remove carcasses. They feared being ostracised by the community. But things are now back on track,” said Ghanshyam Patel of Karjan Panjrapol in Vadodra.
Official say some villages faced problems for a few days with Dalits staying away, but the panchayats have been instructed to seek the district administration’s help if needed.
In Una, the epicentre of the Dalit protest, officials say the Dalit threat has made no dent. “In the whole month, not a single incident was reported from any village in Una taluka where carcasses remained unattended,” said Ajay Kumar, the district collector of Gir Somnath.
But Dalits say they remain steadfast in their resolve and the families of the youths flogged in Una are staying away from the traditional livelihood. “The families have not taken up a single skinning work since the incident,” pointed out Keval Rathod, a relative.
Dalit protest leaders are also hopeful that their decision to stay away from “degrading jobs” would bring the community the respect it deserved. “We wish that even civic body employees join us in the fight against injustice,” said Jignesh Mevani, an Ahmedabad-based lawyer who has become the face of the Dalit agitation in Gujarat.
The clean-up job
• Cow population in Gujarat: 10 million
•Cow deaths per day: 2,000 approx
•8 municipal corporations/33 district panchayats/249 taluka panchayats employ some 30,000 cleaners
•285 cow shelters with 2 lakh cows employ contractors to remove carcasses
•District officials ordered to provide earth movers and chemicals to gram panchayats for speedy disposal of carcasses.