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'Valmikies' continue to scavenge for existence

Although legally banned in 1993, 150 million untouchables are still employed in cleaning and carrying human waste.
PTI | By Sachin Kumar Jain
UPDATED ON APR 29, 2004 02:10 PM IST

When Sumitra Bai left her parents home in Barotha village and came to her husband's house in a small village in central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh her eyes were brimming with dreams. But her reverie was rudely cut-short when as a bride's homecoming gift she was given the job of manually removing night soil from 25 affluent houses everyday.
 
Overnight, Sumitra became a part of the most exploited, oppressed and stigmatised occupation among the so-called untouchables or dalit community that continues to face discrimination on account of the 3,500-year-old caste system in India. Manually cleaning human excreta is the most demeaning among "unclean occupations" that most of the roughly 150-million dalits in the country are forced into due to a rigid caste system that makes occupation hereditary and nearly impossible for anyone to break from.
 
Sumitra refused to lift night soil on her head and tried hard to come out of the vicious circle. She took a loan of Rs 20,000 with the help of social workers and started a cloth shop in the village. But her village community could not bear this defiance and a rumour was spread that she stocked cloth taken from burial grounds. She sold nothing for three months and was forced to shut shop. After one-and-a-half-year of struggle, she admitted defeat and returned to manual scavenging occupation.

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