I recently stumbled across a short film, a PSA by Tata Trust, which many people described as heart warming. I wish I felt heart warmed but what I really felt was quite the opposite. The film was made to encourage citizens to segregate waste better & provide better conditions to sanitation workers. You might be thinking “What’s wrong with that?” Encouraging people to segregate waste properly is a needed initiative and I have no doubt that the intent was well meaning.
But let’s look at intent V/S impact.
All I could think about while watching the film, was how it makes manual scavenging look like a courageous option, almost a vocation, a calling, a profession that a person chooses willingly. The harsh reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it depicts a child of a sewage worker describing his father as a heroic citizen who runs the country. Sounds wonderful right?
However, and I quote “The International Labour Organization describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:
1)Removal of human excrement from public streets and “dry latrines” (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal, but not dry toilets in general)
2)Cleaning septic tanks
3)Cleaning gutters and sewers In addition manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.”
Let’s start with understanding one important truth; A person who does this job doesn’t do it from choice. It’s a caste driven profession thrust on him by generations of Indians practising Inequality. It is intrinsically integrated with caste, where Dalits form the backbone of this abhorrent manner of manually cleaning and clearing human waste. I might be stretching it here, but a 2000 year old culture/civilisation that allows its people to do this, has no real right to call itself civilised! There’s a flaw in this narrative that we feed ourselves.
The film makes a hero out of this man. He is his son’s hero, which is great. Every parent should be a hero to their child. But my point here is that, when we as a society make a hero out of him, we legitimatise a profession that is illegitimate and illegal. It’s not like he had any options, and when we make it seem like he did, it becomes easy for us to wash our hands off it and look the other way. A film like this that makes it seem like he chose to be India’s sanitary soldier, that he chose to work in the most hazardous unsanitary conditions known to man, a film like this that glorifies and puts false values of pride in his work is almost as dangerous as the job he does. It gives him no out. It inherently works to retain the class and caste divide so as to keep him firmly in his place. If you really want to uplift him then help him get out of that gutter that generations of us have put him in. Start a campaign to stop this practice instead of justifying it! We should not want to “better” his working conditions, we should aim to do away with it altogether, don’t you think?
“In 2013, the Government of India for the first time acknowledged the cleaning of dry toilets as manual scavenging and made it an illegal offence, punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. However, so far no convictions have been made under the law.Oct 5, 2018”
His son shouldn’t have to go in front of his peers in a classroom and defend the indefensible. It’s unpardonable that a human has to do this perilous job that is done by machines in most of the world. “Mera papa desh chalata hain” is the slogan, but the real question is why? Why should he have to do a job that deprives him of his health & dignity? What he needs instead of these films that unknowingly work to retain the status quo, and “keep him in his place” is for people to fight in his corner. He would have been better served if big corporates & concerned citizens would raise awareness on how to stop this practice. His son doesn’t need a “heroic” father who is dead.
When we see a person going into a manhole or gutter and we drive by without a second look, his death in a way is on us isn’t it? We are all collectively part of the system that keeps him there. Speaking for myself I know I have looked the other way. Hell in this country it’s just easier to turn a blind eye isn’t it? But maybe we can be part of the solution by starting the conversation. Maybe we start by asking ourselves why the Government of India, in over 70 years of independence hasn’t found a solution! Is it because some people’s lives are valued higher than others? Is it that these particular set of people, have historically been treated as expendable in this country of ours? How long will we allow them to be seen as worthless?
Is Legislation enough of a solution? Or do we as a society & citizenry have to be more involved in ensuring that the law is upheld in our cities, towns and municipalities? It’s probably both I would think. But whatever the solution, the one thing I do know is that a film like this does not help. To my mind if the subtext is wrong then the intent has no meaning.
It is immoral to glorify this job that shouldn’t be a job in the first place. No child should ever have to say what the kid says in the film.
No “Desh” or Country should have to run on the corpses of its poorest & weakest.