Kaviraj Sanghelia clearly remembers the day he saw an old woman carrying a bucket and broom being knocked down by a cyclist outside his school.
When he and his schoolmates rushed to help her, he realised it was his mother.
“She was on her way to work and she was hurrying across the road because she didn’t want to embarrass me in front of my friends,” says Sanghelia.
The 55-year-old is sitting in his new, four-storey house in Harka Nagar, a slum in Pune, Maharashtra, populated largely by members of the mahatar caste, whose traditional occupation is that of manual scavenging, a euphemism for someone who removes human and animal excreta.
“That day I told myself that I would starve but I would never become a sweeper,” says Sanghelia.
As Pune transformed over 15 years from a quiet university town into a vibrant frontier of India’s information technology revolution, Sanghelia found a measure of success.
The most visible sign of this today is his Chinese fast-food stall, Baba’s Corner, which stands outside the gigantic Nucleus mall, one of many shopping centres that have sprung up here over the past decade to serve the rising number of professionals moving here from across the country.
Baba’s Corner is a modest enterprise, offering limited fare at five plastic tables. But getting even this going took a great deal of perseverance.
For the first two years after he set the stall up 30 years ago, no one would eat there.
“They knew I was a mahatar. But I somehow held on. At the age of 10, I had read a speech by B.R. Ambedkar,” he says, referring to the Dalit social reformer, lawyer and author of the Indian Constitution. “He said every man is in charge of his own destiny.”
Harka Nagar began as a small colony of eight or 10 sweepers whom the British brought to Pune from across India in the mid-1800s to serve the cantonment.
Its location on the city’s outskirts mirrored the layout of the village, where mahatars are relegated to the margins.
Today, the slum houses about 8,000 inhabitants, most descendants of those original scavengers. It’s not a squalid place: The largely two-storey houses are made of cement, the lanes are fairly wide and open out into airy quadrangles every so often.
But even today, Sanghelia is an exception in Harka Nagar, his relative success underlining the social, economic and psychological barriers that still combine to make it enormously difficult for inhabitants of this slum to break out of their milieu and partake in the shiny, modern economy humming away in other parts of the city.
More than a century after social reformer Jyotiba Phule launched his Satyashodhak Samaj movement in this city to improve the educational and social status of the lower castes, about three quarters of the slum’s working population are still employed in menial jobs connected with manual scavenging, according to rough-and-ready estimates by social workers and locals.
Many are sweepers or toilet cleaners with the municipal corporation and other government offices.
Part of the reason lies in the low educational levels here. Very few youngsters finish high school, say residents. Sanghelia himself studied only up to Class 6.
“The harsh reality is that even the sweeper jobs at government offices are highly coveted,” says Ashish Chavhan (35).
Chavhan has a BA, speaks fluent English and now runs a small camphor business. But his first job was as a sweeper with the municipal corporation.
It is not merely economic need that drives mahatars to apply for sweeper jobs, says Madhavi Kamble, a social worker with Pune-based NGO Manuski (a Marathi word for humanity, used frequently by Ambedkar), which works with Dalits across Maharashtra.
“Many have internalised the caste system to such an extent that they cannot see themselves doing anything else,” says Kamble. “This feeling runs so deep that they actually resent it when people of other castes apply for the same job. They feel they are being done out of what is rightfully theirs.”
So is the outlook bleak for the younger generation?
Sanghelia’s daughter, who recently gave her Class 12 exams at one of Pune’s top three colleges, certainly doesn’t think so. She’s excited about starting her BCom degree. She plans to do an MBA.
She recently turned 18, so she’s also looking forward to voting in the forthcoming general election.
“I just had my voter ID made,” she says. “This card makes me equal to all Indian citizens. I will vote for someone who can make life better for all Puneites.”