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Manual scavenging: Will Tamil stars prevail against this horrifying practice?

PM Modi’s Swacch Bharat programme may be India’s largest ever cleanliness drive but the scourge of manual scavenging remains. Now, some Tamil stars are challenging it.

regional movies Updated: Jul 14, 2017 15:15 IST
Apoorva Sripathi
Apoorva Sripathi
Grist Media
Manual scavenging,Tamil film stars,Rajinikanth
In an online campaign, actor Sathyaraj, better known for his role in blockbuster Baahubali, starts with a scathing attack on our collective apathy towards the issue of manual scavenging.

It’s 2017. We have driverless cars. We have absurd kitchen gadgets. We have weird personal gadgets such as a ‘smart hairbrush’ that can monitor the health of our hair, and condom rings that measure velocity and girth. But when it comes to collecting human waste, we still outsource the work to our fellow human beings.

Sanitation has by now firmly entered the mainstream conversation thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat programme launched in 2014, India’s largest ever cleanliness drive. Even Bollywood has taken the hint, with Akshay Kumar’s upcoming Toilet: Ek Prem Katha touted to be a comedy that apparently supports the national campaign. However, according to the 2011 census, 1.8 lakh Indian households in rural areas still reported having manual scavengers. India still has 26 lakh dry latrines, out of which human waste is flushed openly in 13 lakh toilets and human waste is cleaned manually in 7.9 lakh dry latrines. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for more than 72% of the insanitary latrines, says one UN finding.

Filmmaker Pa Ranjith is known to explore and champion the cause of the Dalits through his films. (Jai Bhim Mandram/Facebook)

According to reports, 209 manual scavenging deaths were recorded in Tamil Nadu over the last two decades - shamefully, one-third of these deaths were in and around Chennai itself. And as activist and founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson pointed out last year, TN also leads the country in the number of sewer line deaths. Wilson has been a relentless warrior in the fight against manual scavenging, describing his 35-year-long fight to eradicate manual scavenging as a ‘chakravyuha’, not knowing how to break out but only how to enter.

Despite several government programmes and initiatives - from the Swachh Bharat programme to Modi’s promise of abolishing manual scavenging by 2019, from the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 - nothing much seems to have changed.

Director Karu Palaniappan’s still from one of the many videos which is part of a campaign launched in June to end manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu. (Jai Bhim Mandram/Facebook)

Now, 55 celebrities including those from the Tamil film industry have joined hands with the social organisation Jai Bhim Mandram for a campaign launched in June to end manual scavenging in the state. They’ve already released a series of more than 30 videos on social media where prominent faces across the industry - directors like Vetrimaaran and Ram, actors like Sathyaraj and Vivek, and writers like Bhaskar Sakthi and Salma - talk about getting rid of manual scavenging and, by extension, the caste system. Several politicians including DMK MP Kanimozhi, All India Congress Committee Secretary Su Thirunavukkarasar, Dalit leader and VCK founder Thol. Thirumavalavan, CPM leader G Ramakrishnan and former Congress member Pazha Nedumaran have also extended notional support to the campaign.

The videos featuring directors Ram and Karu Palaniappan and actor Sathyaraj have especially gone viral on the Internet. In it, Sathyaraj starts with a scathing indictment: “Humans are by far the worst of the animals when it comes to faecal waste. And to clean it, they send another human being into tanks. How horrifying is that?” Palaniappan says starkly, “We might think manual scavenging sounds nice and polished in English but it’s actually ‘manidha malathai manidhargal kayyal alluvadhu’ (human beings scooping human waste with their own hands), which we cleanse with Dettol and say it in English as manual scavenging.”

Seen here, a manual scavenger cleaning a tank. (Divya Bharathi)

Alongside the videos, the campaign also staged a socio-political play called Manjal (Yellow) on July 3 in Chennai. Based on Bhasha Singh’s explosive book on manual scavengers, Unseen, the play depicted the testimonies of women instead of going the usual way of telling a straight story. “It’s a women-centric practice, so we thought we’d look at the cases where women revolted,” says Jayaraani, coordinator at Jai Bhim Mandram. Around 2,500 people attended the play at Kamarajar Arangam in Chennai.

Jayaraani traces the beginning of the campaign to the 2015 December floods in Chennai and the various rehabilitation efforts. She and her colleagues observed that it was actually manual scavengers - who were certainly not equipped to handle disaster waste - who were involved in the cleanup. She observed how these workers suffered from nausea and fever, how glass pieces infected their feet and hands, how some even needed their legs amputated due to the glass pieces and negligence, as well as two deaths. Around the same time, news also broke of three workers who had died cleaning a septic tank of a Thalappakatti Biryani restaurant in Chennai.

In the time since, the team has also conducted workshops for children of manual scavengers, especially those between the ages of 16 and 22, to discuss the dangers of manual scavenging and encourage them to choose other professions.

Seeking public support

Jayaraani and team are not the only ones to try to abolish manual scavenging. Last month, filmmaker-activist Divya Bharathi released the heart-wrenching documentary Kakkoos on YouTube that gives us a glimpse into the toils and troubles of manual scavengers, whom she tracked across 25 cities in 20 districts in Tamil Nadu. She wanted to invoke “guilt” into the minds of her audience who remains unmindful of the practice and the people involved. The documentary was even prevented from screening in March this year by the TN police, citing potential ‘law and order’ problems in Madurai, Coimbatore and Nagercoil districts, calling her a Naxalite and a terrorist, according to one report.

The campaign also staged a socio-political play called Manjal (Yellow) on July 3 in Chennai, which is based on Bhasha Singh’s explosive book on manual scavengers called Unseen. (Jai Bhim Mandram)

Many like to contrast the fight against manual scavenging, which has been so fragmented, to the success of the pro-jallikattu protests - and point to the age-old slogan, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. Even if it did begin small, the sheer number of public supporters who turned up for jallikattu made the fight overwhelming, prompting the media to call it a ‘revolution’. As Bharathi points out, “The jallikkattu movement wasn’t a struggle; it was a celebration.”

Deepthi Sukumar, national core member of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, disagrees and believes that no matter who is behind the fight, whether celebrities or activists, it is still a step in the right direction. “Different people take [a social issue] up in their own capacity and it’s not necessary that everyone has to come together. We are all networked, we’re in touch with each other and we support each other.”

Along with Jai Bhim Mandram, acclaimed director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions was the one to produce the play Manjal. Ranjith, of Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali fame, first rose to prominence for his political drama, Madras (2016), detailing the life of Dalits and their politics set in north Chennai. While producing the play, Ranjith says there was one critical thing he learnt about manual scavengers. “We all love rain. We romanticise it and celebrate it, but manual scavengers don’t like the rain because it makes their work more difficult. I learnt how horrifying rain is to them,” he says.

A major reason for this struggle’s slow progress lies in urban apathy - our direct disregard for the law (which deems manual scavenging illegal) coupled with our comfortable acceptance in exploiting other people for menial work, all blanketed with a heavy denial of our privilege. In February, a discussion took place in the Rajya Sabha on the miserable conditions of manual scavengers, where the deputy speaker, PJ Kurien of the Congress, initially refused to accept that the practice is prevalent in Kerala. It took more than just former union minister Jairam Ramesh to alert him to the number of manual scavengers in the country. Kurien finally conceded the point after other members also joined the argument against him, and accepted that “if it is prevalent even now, it is a serious issue. It should be tackled and all of us and the government should ensure that it is stopped”.

Madras and Kabali director Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions has produced the play, Manjal. (Jai Bhim Mandram)

DMK MP Kanimozhi agrees that manual scavenging remains prevalent in Tamil Nadu simply because “there’s not enough awareness”, and that “the [Jai Bhim] campaign will help to a great extent …We can’t deny that there hasn’t been any serious progress [in the fight against manual scavenging]. For some people there’s hardly been any change, for some there has been. We cannot give up the struggle.”

The need for a collective front

Jai Bhim Mandram has a list of demands it intends to present to the TN government, but no date or specific plan has been set as yet. As time passes, there is the danger that the videos on social media will be swiftly forgotten and manual scavenging will be once again relegated to small column spaces in the newspaper, only making news when there is a death.

Even government acts seem to remain ineffective. The TN government passed an order on April 24 to constitute a state-level monitoring committee under the chief minister for the effective implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Merely three days later, a manual scavenger died of asphyxiation while trying to rescue a co-worker trapped inside a sewage pipeline. As one commentator wrote, “politicians behave like politicians” and now it is up to citizen groups to build a “citizen-driven movement” to end “ill-treatment of sanitation workers”.

Which is why filmmaker-activist Divya Bharathi stresses that it has to be a collective fight. “It’s a good thing that people are organising campaigns but a single movement cannot bring justice - we have to collaborate. Everyone spoke about the play [Manjal] on social media for 10 days but it was just people changing their profile pictures and status. That isn’t the fight. If you want to participate there should be a huge revolution in you first, you should get out of your casteist comfort zone.”

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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First Published: Jul 14, 2017 14:03 IST