SCAVENGING THROUGH AN UNDERMINED GOLDMINE - ARUL
The war against caste in the diversity-rich country that is India, is silently annihilating the livelihoods of many hardworking and perseverant men, women and their children. This war makes national news almost everyday, however, the little-known battles that are quietly being fought in small towns and villages go unrecognised. The usual order of the day involves sifting through occurrences that make it to the speeches of deafening political rallies. But Rajamanickam, a man who aims to bridge the chasm of caste division, with innocence that guilts, asks me, "Why doesn't the media want to cover important issues like these? Aren't they as important as any other national problem? Just because we belong to a small district, does that mean our struggles are any lesser?" Rajamanickam is referring to the issue of manual scavenging which plagues the Arunthathiyar community, and despite a law being passed in Parliament, still continues.
ARUL, an acronym for Action for Rural Upliftment and Leadership, was founded by Mr. K Rajamanickam in Soorankottai, Ramanathapuram along with 7 trustees in 2008. The organisation focuses on rehabilitating manual scavengers in villages of Ramanathapuram district by providing alternative employment and education for their children. On asking them about their work, a plethora of experiences flood the discussion. Most of these experiences reflect the sheer discrimination faced by and the dehumanisation of the community. "The occupation itself is a huge disrespect to human life. Manual scavengers are reduced to mechanical beings with no integrity by both the higher caste communities and the government. There are rising cases of suicide due to low pay, lack of medical treatment and drinking problems." Many health problems are involved due of the risk of contracting skin diseases when working in septic tanks. The government hospitals which are supposedly free for all, ask for a fee when they treat manual scavengers.
Rajamanickam agrees that lack of mechanisation is what drives the business of manual scavenging but doesn't whole-heartedly concur. "Mechanisation is possible, but the amount of money allocated for sanitation by the government is so little, that it doesn't even suffice for basic sanitation facilities. People of higher communities make sure that the generations of manual scavengers are 'put in their place' and never take any other occupation up." So it a legal problem or a money problem? "A caste problem is what it is and we must see it as that. The government is intentionally holding back funding and modern machinery to feed their oppressive mindsets."
Despite the existing Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 law which punishes the act of employing manual scavengers with a fine of Rs.2,000, the police fail to enforce the law and no FIRs have been filed against those who employ manual scavengers. The other angle of monetary issues is also instrumental but not the main reason behind the existence of the occupation. "So much is put aside for an upcoming wine shop, but the government doesn't care about the issue of manual scavenging. In fact, they prefer it were there. To pay them a menial Rs.50-70 for several hours of work benefits them more than having to pay Rs.2000 of electricity charges for using machines to clean the sewer. In other developed countries, work determines wages. In our country, caste determines wages." The vortex of selfishness doesn't seem to end. Rajamanickam further expands on how future generations of these scavengers are gradually trapped in this vortex, leaving them with no other option but to camouflage themselves in this caste-shaming society by taking to their fathers' professions. "Children of manual scavengers are discouraged from pursuing a good education and their path towards this inhumane occupation is pre-planned. The idea that children from this particular community are only deserving of menial work and meagre pay and not a proper education is damaging to both them and the country's future."
So where does ARUL come in? "We've observed that children who get a 10th Standard education are least likely to go back to the profession than other children with lower education. So we have put to use a Central Government scheme for economically backward children that provides them scholarships to study in schools. Many headmasters ward us away, but on showing them a copy of the Government Order, they admit the children into their institutions."
ARUL has helped 500 children study at schools and colleges of their choice. The children also receive encouragement from their own parents to study. But when it comes to doubts and clarifications in their homework or evn career path confusion, they cannot turn to their parents for the right guidance. For this reason, ARUL runs a tuition centre where they provide free guidance and encourage the spirit of inquiry. They also provide career counselling and advice for those on the crossroads. Rajamanickam recollects an incident. "A young boy who has a Bachelors in Chemistry was interested in Sanitation, so we helped him get a diploma and sanitation and is currently trying to get a job as a sanitation inspector." But Rajamanickam intends for the boy to get promoted as a district officer to prove the point that even a manual scavenger's son can make it to the top.
"Generations have been subject to such dehumanisation, but we want to help uplift the current and future generations so this does not continue." With regard to rehabilitation by employment, ARUL has helped scavengers get promotions to posts of. Some hold jobs as drivers. Women scavengers work as housemaids and typists. Currently 320 people are members of the association and 500 scavengers have been successfully rehabilitated through ARUL. Future plans involve starting a co-operative bank of their own in order to provide hassle-free loans that no scavenger has to bribe his way through.
Rajamanickam keeps a triumphant face on and concludes, "We will get through this. With the support and strength of the community, we will eradicate this inhuman practice. Because every life matters, and no one has the right to devalue a fellow human being on any basis."