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Monday, 2 September, 2002, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Bangalore's 'night soil' collectors
Dalits clearing excreta by hand during the night
Removing raw sewage by hand

It may be India's high-tech capital, but the practise of humans using their bare hands to clean toilet pits continues in Bangalore to this day.

In the dead of the night, when the city of six million goes to sleep, groups of jobless low-caste Hindus, known as Dalits, eke out a living by removing human excrement from pits in the poorer neighbourhoods of the city.

It just shows there is no human value for Dalits

Babu Mathew - Human rights activist

The failure of the civic authorities to provide a proper sewage system has forced the residents in these localities to build these pits, a common feature particularly in rural India.

But that such a system exists in Bangalore attracts sharp criticism from those who care for human values and dignity, as the city is often called the Silicon Valley of India due to the presence of global and Indian software companies.

Caste values

"There is a long tradition of misusing Dalits for this dirty work. It just shows there is no human value for Dalits" says Babu Mathew, a human rights activist and professor at India's premier National Law School based in Bangalore.

"By law it is abolished but in reality night soil allied activity is practised even today" said Mathew, blaming it on the insensitivity of politicians and bureaucracy.

Dalit digs out raw sewage by hand
Worker clears sewage at night
Ashok Salappa, a member of the government-run Safai Karmachari (sweepers) Monitoring Committee, estimates the number of Dalits employed in cleaning toilet pits in Bangalore to be between 10,000 to 15,000.

"I feel ashamed that it is still happening even after 53 years of Independence" said Salappa, who calls those who undertake such a job as "dalits among dalits".

"They are treated the worst in society," said Salappa.

K Ravi, a member of the local welfare association at Venkateshapura, one of the localities where manual excrement removing exists, described the situation as "pathetic."

"The government is doing nothing here. It is barely six kilometres from the state secreteriat - but look at the mess here."

Modus operandi

As and when the pits get clogged, the call goes out for these wretched workers, who are desperate for even the dirtiest of jobs.

"We normally do this work in a group of five. The wages are shared" said 25-year-old Mariappa, explaining the modus operandi.
Infosys headquarters in Bangalore
The high tech image of Banglalore

After swigs of strong alcohol to ward off the stench, one member of the group gets into the pit and empties it with buckets or cans and the refuse is taken away by others away from the vicinity.

"We have to get drunk to do this job. Nobody likes it but we do it for a livelihood."

At the end of the night, they stagger back home with earnings of between 300 and 500 Rupees (about $6 to $10).

"It is not enough. We barely manage to make a living" says Mariappa.

"But for the liquor and its intoxicating effect, it is impossible to get anywhere close to the pit," said Ashok Salappa, who has been campaigning for replacing manual clearance with suction machines.

Civic authorities have finally taken note and plan to buy two machines.

The work is seen as an extension of the night soil system, banned by the state government in 1973.

Low-caste Hindus were forced to carry human excreta on their head, a practise that was opposed by Mahatama Gandhi, championing the cause of the underprivileged in the country during the freedom struggle.

The National Human Rights Commission in Delhi has written to Prime Minister A B Vajpayee to end what it called the degrading practice across the country.

"It is a matter of national shame that despite over half a century of our independence, the inhuman practice of manual scavenging continues," said Commission Chairman J S Verma.

See also:

31 Jul 02 | Business
20 Feb 02 | South Asia
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