Manual Scavenging: The Real Meaning of the Dirtiest Jobs

This week at Media Voices, we have an article by Mari Marcel Thekaekara, a wonderful writer who has made caste discrimination against the Dalits her particular focus. Mari Marcel ThekaekaraIn A Historical Battle for Dignity for India’s Balmikis, an article written for the Dalit Network Netherlands, Thekaekara tracks the first steps the Balmiki community is taking to resist the deeply engrained caste discrimination that limits them to the dirtiest jobs. “The dirtiest jobs” is a glib little phrase we’re all familiar with, but it was a revelation to me to find out exactly how appalling these jobs really are. “Manual scavenging” is another tidy phrase. It turns out to be a euphemism for cleaning shit from dry toilets and carrying the feces to the dump. By hand.

We have two films this week that detail the full range of discrimination experienced by the Dalits. In I’m Dalit – How Are You?, produced by the International Dalit Solidarity Network , we see incredible footage of a man in a simple loincloth diving into a sewer to clear a blockage, among other things. Unreported World has a longer film on the Dalits, The Broken People. In this film, the reporter learns that rape and murder of DalitDalit people is not uncommon, the logical consequence of the fact that their fellow citizens see Dalits as not quite fully human. One of the more chilling sequences comes as an upper-caste landlord describes how common it used to be for people (other people, to be sure) to rape a Dalit woman if they came across her when no one else was around. He doesn’t actually say that he did this himself, but his chuckle certainly makes you wonder.

I’ve read a number of Mari Marcel Thekaekara’s articles on InfoChange. See particularly, “We will never clean shit again” and “Dying for a Living”, “Malgudi Coffee Shop and Other Stories” and “Child Labour and Untouchability in Government Schools” . As a result of the civil rights movement Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), Dalit children are beginning to conceive of a future that might bring something other than the dirtiest of jobs. The road to equality is long and bumpy – it certainly has been in the U.S. – but little by little small victories are won, small gains are made.


IMG_2382Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods and Rescuing Emmanuel for Galen Films. She began her career at WNET (PBS) in New York City as an associate producer for Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. She also worked as an associate producer and stock footage researcher on Robert Moses, for WNET and JFK: A Time Remembered for Obenhaus Films and The Susskind Company.
As a film editor, Petra has worked for the New York Times Oral History Project on their film, Taste Ladies and Ink-Stained Wretches. She was a contributing editor to Stolen Childhoods, Rescuing Emmanuel and Big Guns Talk – all for Galen Films.

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