Despite Untouchability, Contractual Service, Paltry Remuneration — Why Bihar’s Mehtars Scavenge Human Excreta for a Living

Despite financial constraints, the community has promising aspirational youth who are countering the notion that individuals from marginalized castes lack the desire for education.
Despite a ban, manual scavenging is still a grim reality in India.
Despite a ban, manual scavenging is still a grim reality in India. Photo: The Mooknayak

Darbhanga (Bihar): Jyoti, a young woman belonging to the Mehtar community, aspires to secure a degree in law from prestigious National Law School of India University, Bangalore. But her potential failure to fulfill the aspiration would be due to financial constraints rather than any notion that individuals from marginalized castes lack the desire for education.

Daughter of a contractual sanitation worker at the Darbhanga Municipal Corporation, the 17-year-old girl, who has passed her pre-university in the month of May this year from Bihar School Examination Board with flying colours, is unsure about achieving her dream, yet her resolute ambition defies stereotypes and recognizes that socioeconomic factors — not caste affiliations — often hinder access to opportunities.

She is a blessed daughter as her father, Praveen Kumar Ram, despite financial constraints, is funding her preparation to appear in the entrance examination of different government-run law colleges across the country. “All I want is — she flies high and gets what she deserves. I will make sure my humble background never hampers her education,” he told The Mooknayak.

The 34-year-old, a resident of Ward No. 27, had joined the civic body 15 years ago as a sanitation worker on contract basis with a hope that his services would be regularised one day and he would draw salaries based on Pay Commission recommendations. However, he is still serving with the same employment status. He gets Rs 11,500 after deductions.

Though he is resolute that he will fund her education, he has two other children (a daughter and a son) to take care of. “I know it’s near impossible for me, but the words of Babasaheb (Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar) — who had said, ‘Shiksha sherni ka dudh hai, jo jitna piyega utna hi daharega’ (Education is a lioness’ milk, the more one drinks it, the more he/she will roar) — gives me strength,” he said.

“Our salaries hardly cover the costs of providing for our families’ fundamental needs such as food, education, healthcare and emergency savings. While cleaning drains, public toilets, hospitals, roads and government departments, we deal with mud, human excreta, filth and garbage — long-term exposure to which makes us prone to life-threatening diseases. If we fall ill, it erases our financial stability we may have attained with our modest savings,” he explained his and fellow workers’ plight.

Utter ‘Disregard’ for Safety, Physical Well-Being

Many other sanitation workers shared similar complaints, highlighting purported disregard for their welfare. They drew attention to the alleged blatant denial of safety gear by their respective departments.

Refusing to be named, fearing action against him, a 35-year-old supervisor who has been serving the city’s municipal corporation for the past 16 years on contractual basis, said, “Following our long-standing demand, we have now been provided with knee high boots, helmet, surgical mask and cleaner apron. Isn’t it laughable? What purpose will the surgical mask serve in the confined space of manholes, which have toxic gasses such as gasoline vapours, methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, etc.? Will it save us from inhaling such poisonous gasses?”

He said when they enter a sewer to clear cloggings, they have to dive deep into the dirty water. But they are allegedly not given safety glasses for protection of their eyes, safety clothing to avoid skin infection, creams, safety gloves, etc.

“These are bare minimum, but who cares. Our lives don’t even matter for the government and this society, whom we serve,” he said.

According to him, they should be provided with safety gloves, reflecting jacket, full body wader suit, gas protection or chlorine mask, airline breathing apparatus — with manually operated air blower, gumboot with steel safety toes, helmet with headlight, safety glasses, cream, barrier, air compressor and searchlight.

“We are even deprived of regular medical examinations and vaccination against respiratory and skin diseases,” he alleged and added, “If illness strikes, even after years of hard work, we are quickly replaced without any monetary compensation”.

Asked how it is done when manual scavenging is completely banned, manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is required in areas where jetting machines cannot go because of narrow lanes and encroachments.

“But it is allowed in exceptional cases only and that too with safety precautions, including devices and protective gear,” he added.

Ironically, everyone this reporter spoke to, unanimously alleged there is no provision of monetary compensation in case of a mishap.

“After a long battle by our union, the district administration has now agreed to pay an ex-gratia amount of Rs 4 lakh if any of us die while discharging our duties. Our demand was Rs 10 lakh. But here is a catch: it is applicable only for those who are serving the municipal corporation on samvida (contract). It does not include daily wagers and outsourced sanitation workers,” he pointed out.

Categorization of Services, Saga of ‘Exploitation’

The employment of sanitation workers in civic bodies across Bihar have three categories — samvida or daily wage, outsourced and permanent employees. The contractual workers are in fact daily wagers who get payment directly from the department at the rate of Rs 500 per day and outsourced employees are hired by various companies and NGOs to work on the latters’ payroll.

These firms and NGOs allegedly pay their employees a paltry amount, but make them sign payment vouchers with higher sums. Majority of the outsourced employees this reporter spoke to said they get Rs 7,000-7,500 but are made to sign on payment vouchers of Rs 11,000-12,000.

Raj Kumar Ram, 36, had joined the civic body in 2001 as a contractual sanitation worker on a monthly remuneration of Rs 1,750. After 23 years of his service, he is now getting Rs 11,300 after deductions.

He was assured that he would get priority over others if the government notified vacancies for sanitation workers. Sadly, there has been no appointment in group-D category since 2004.

The father of two children who are six and eight years old asked if the amount is enough to make ends meet in this age of “high inflation”. To take care of my ailing parents and meet the expenses of my family of six, he goes door-to-door — seeking sanitation work in free hours.

“There is a hullabaloo around the government’s free ration scheme. Is it possible to survive on 5-kg of wheat and rice? There are other household requirements. We cannot leave our children at the mercy of government schools, where quality education is a far-fetched dream. Private education institutions are not less than an industry, but sadly there is no escape. Majority of my earnings is spent on school fees, books and stationery. The much-talked about smart card (the Ayushman Card issued to those under the below poverty line as part of the Central government’s flagship health scheme for free treatment up to Rs 5 lakh) is nothing but a fraud as no private hospital agrees to accept it,” he said.

The Bihar government (Urban Development and Housing Department), through anadministrative order in 2017, asked all government departments across the state to outsource work being done by daily-wage sanitation workers. Our approached the Patna High Court, pleading it to direct the government to roll back the order and regularise services of daily wagers. The court in May 2020 stayed the order and ordered status quo.

But the Nitish Kumar-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government in Bihar challenged the HC’s verdict in the Supreme Court, where the matter is pending.

Vicky, who heads an organisation called the Mehtar Yuva Sangathan, alleged the government is indirectly depriving them of the benefits of reservation. “Since the Constitution guarantees reservation to the Scheduled Caste (SC) population, it cannot be denied by any government. And therefore, the Nitish administration has resorted to outsourcing and contract systems so that the socially, economically and educationally backward community can be deprived of its rights,” he alleged.

Asked to elaborate, he said, “Earlier, the government used to appoint people from the Mehtar and Dom communities as sanitation workers in its different departments. Our community was economically prospering because of a proper pay scale and other employment benefits. Now, private companies and NGOs have been roped in that offer meagre sums and exploit the workforce. It has further pushed us to poverty and backwardness.”

The outsourced workers allegedly do not get casual or sick leaves, except six weekly offs. They have to work for 24 days every month, while the contractual workers get 26 days of work each month.

They said they face difficulties in getting their emergency leaves sanctioned. They also said they are not privileged enough to enjoy holidays on festivals, while their high-ranking officials spend time with their families at home. “We don’t have personal lives. Even in case of tragedies in the family, we are asked to report the next day,” they alleged.

Gauri Devi, 35, brooms and sweeps platforms at Darbhanga Railway Junction. She is also on a third party payroll. Earlier, she was made to sign on a payment voucher of Rs 12,000 but paid Rs 7,000 every month. But recently, the tender has been awarded to a new firm — which will pay her Rs 9,000 per month.

The mother of three was unable to hide her happiness caused by the unprecedented rise of Rs 2,000.

“Now, I would be able to save something every month. My husband also works with the municipal corporation as a daily-wager. His salary is spent on household expenses, and I fund our children’s studies,” she said.

She married off her eldest sister soon after she passed 12th grade. But her remaining two daughters aged 15 and 18 are in pre-university and university respectively. She wants them to study further and secure government jobs.

She lives in a small hut erected on three dhurs (3.60 square feet) of government land. Her husband has inherited one kattha (1,361 square feet) of ancestral land among his four brothers on the outskirts of the city.

Untouchable Even Within Dalits

The Mehtar and Dom communities are at the bottom of the caste-based social order. They are not only discriminated against by the so-called upper caste, but also by their fellow SC communities, which are relatively well-off and consider themselves above them. They suffer various forms of oppression in the feudal-agrarian society of Bihar.

Rajendra Ram, 52, a research scholar whose Ph.D. thesis is titled as ‘Study of Social Reality in the Context of Mehtar Caste’, said the ruling class designed the Hindu Varna or classes, which are hierarchical in nature, in such a way that the traditionally oppressed communities can never rise and become part of the mainstream society.

He argued the cosmogony for the origin of the society was added to sacred scriptures in order to obtain religious approval for the separation of society into occupation groups to establish hegemony and control.

“We were classified as Shudras and placed on the last ladder. We were assigned the dirtiest work, made to work as bounded labourers and survive on their leftover food. Our existence was always hated. We were made to live in hamlets in the south direction of villages to ensure that the air does not reach the upper castes after touching us. The air flows from east, west and north directions, but not from the south direction,” lambasted the general secretary of the Bharatiya Bhangi Vikas Manch — an organisation, which works for the betterment of the Dalit community — while talking to The Mooknayak.

Though untouchability, according to him, has lessened to a great extent in cities, it is still being practiced unabated in rural areas. The untouchability is not much visible in cities because it is hardly physically practiced. Instead, it has evolved into institutional untouchability, where institutions are designed to be distinct from one another.

“City planning serves as a model for the use of privilege and power, resulting in the creation and maintenance of segregation that strengthens prejudices and stereotypes against particular communities,” he said, adding, “It is crucial that we never forget that caste-dominated India is the source of housing segregation. Segregation is a historically pervasive trend that results in cities becoming more and more homogenized places where particular classes of people can only have specific rights and the privileges that go along with them”.

He said be it Auguste Comte (a French philosopher whose work is focused on the social structure of Indian society, with particular emphasis on caste and race), Emile Durkheim (a French sociologist whose conception of the scientific study of society laid the groundwork for modern sociology), Herbert Spencer (a British philosopher and psychologist who incorporated the theory of evolution into the society) or CA Moser (a British statistician whose researched on social phenomenon and problems), everyone concluded India’s caste system is a stigma; unless it is eradicated, India cannot develop.

Ram said the Mehtar and Dom communities are considered untouchables even by other SC communities such as Paswans, Dhobis, etc. “They attend our functions, but don’t have food with us. We have to send uncooked food to their houses,” he added.

Asked about privatisation, outsourcing and contractual employment, he said it’s the outcome of globalisation. “Outsourcing of Group-D employees began from the Western Railway when Suresh Kalmadi was the Union Minister of Railways. Since it was cost effective as at least four sanitation workers can either be appointed on contract basis or outsourced in the salary of one permanent employee, it was adopted by state governments. It is in fact a conspiracy against the SC community to keep them financially unstable so that they keep struggling to make ends meet and never ask for their upliftment,” he said with rage.

Asked what the Dalit leadership in different political parties are doing, he said, “They are not leaders of the community but power brokers. Once they reach the corridors of power, they indulge in nepotism and forget their communities. Be it late Ramvilas Paswan (former Union minister), Jitan Ram Manjhi (former Bihar chief minister), Ashok Choudhary (minister of the Building Construction Department in the Bihar government), Maheshwar Hazari (deputy speaker of Bihar Legislative Assembly), everyone served his family only.”

Except a few thousands of High School teachers and inspectors of the Bihar Police, he said, no appointment was made in the 15-year rule of Lalu Prasad Yadav. In the 2004 Assembly elections, Dalits voted en bloc in favour of the NDA led by Nitish Kumar. But he went a step ahead and stopped appointments of sanitation workers.

Raja Ram, 42, who is an outsourced cleaning staff in an operation theatre of the Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital (DMCH), said it pains him when he is called as someone belonging to “nichli jaati (lower caste)”. “Why should there be discrimination on the basis of birth in a particular community? We don’t have control over birth and death. A child is born to ‘upper caste’ parents, he will be a de-facto ‘upper caste’; but if a child is born in a Dalit community, he will be considered ‘lower caste’. Why? As a human being, there is no difference in their physical characters,” he said.

He gets Rs 8,000 per month but signs on the payment voucher of Rs 12,000. “Can a family of four be looked after properly in this amount, let alone educating children?” he asked.

Wondering why there is untouchability based on caste, wondered Suraj Kumar Choudhary, 21, who has graduated in English literature and is preparing for civil services, when even Hindu religious text negates it.

“Bhagwat Gita says, ‘Brahm ka gyan rakhne wala hi Barhmin hai (the one who attains the highest form of spiritual knowledge, transcends the material world and leads to self-realization and enlightenment, is a Brahmin)’. He/she can be anyone irrespective of his or her caste. It does not say only those who are born in a Brahmin family will be a Brahmin,” he argued.

He invoked Balgangadhar Tilak, who had said, “If God believes in untouchability, I won’t call him God.”

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