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Page last updated at 08:03 GMT, Wednesday, 17 November 2010
India's forgotten people

Manual scavenger at work
A manual scavenger carries a tin of human waste from a dry latrine

By Mike Thomson
Bihar, India

A 40 year-old mother-of-seven balances a large tin full of human waste on her head.

As she walks between homes emptying dry latrines, the foul contents she is carrying drip down onto her vibrant purple sari. The smell is atrocious and I am several metres away.


Following Mike Thomson's report, the Today programme have had many emails from listeners who would like to make a donation to help Lakshmi Devi or other Dalits in India working as manual scavengers.

The charities listed below either work with manual scavengers or assist hundreds of thousands of other Dalits find a way out of extreme poverty.

The programme understands that some donations have already been earmarked for Lakshmi herself and that the remainder would go to other Dalits in similar need.

Lakshmi Devi, who lives in rural Bihar, is one of 350,000 people in India known as manual scavengers. Their job is so degrading, filthy and full of health hazards that the Indian government banned it many years ago.

But, despite this and the contempt those doing this work experience, it's the only way for some of the country's poorest people to earn money to survive.

Lakshmi shows me inside her small dingy home. Its outside walls are covered in what looks like soot and the inside is empty, apart from a few meagre possessions lining a far wall.

Yet it is not so much the poverty itself that she struggles to cope with. It is the work she feels compelled to do to feed her family.

"It is so disgusting, such a dirty horrible job. I soon learnt that the only way to do it is to hold my breath for as long as possible.

"The first time I thought I was going to be sick. My mother never forced me to do this job but she told me that there was no other work and if we didn't do it the family would starve."

Lakshmi tell me that how ever hard she washes when she gets home she is always unclean in the minds of local people.

"When people see me in the streets they cover their noses and say, there goes a manual scavenger. It makes me feel so embarrassed and ashamed," she says.

Lakshmi Devi

"Sometimes I get so desperate I ask God why I was born into this community, destined for a job like this."

Born into India's lowest caste, Dalits, Lakshmi tells me that she and how children are treated as literally untouchable. "The parents of other children are told that if they touch mine they should wash the place that made contact to purify themselves. My children come home telling me how much this affects them. They often cry and feel very unhappy."

Fighting back tears she goes on to describe the nightmare of going shopping for manual scavengers like herself: "Traders don't let me near the food they sell. I am not even allowed to touch the vegetables.

"They say that people like me will pollute their vegetables and nobody else will buy them if we are seen handling anything. I have to point to what I want and then they put it on the ground and leave me to pick it up from there."

As we talk, the sound of a election campaign megaphone can be heard, screeching over the din of people gathered in the street outside.

A garlanded Mike with a group of scavengers
A garlanded Mike with a group of scavengers

"Whenever there are elections the politicians come and make big promises," she tells me. "They say, we'll give you this and we'll give you that. But as soon as the elections are over they do not do anything.

"They forget all about us. Next time they will be back and it will be just the same all over again."

But there are some signs of change. More government money has been made available to help people like Lakshmi find other work.

Earlier this month a thousand former manual scavengers held a rally in New Delhi to demand the total eradication of manual scavenging by the end of the year.

The organisers, known as SKA (Safai Karamchari Andolan) declared: "Once people realise that it is slavery, they want it to stop. If the government does not accept our demands within sixty days we will come back to Delhi and stay put here until our demands are met."

Meanwhile, Lakshmi and many other manual scavengers have little option but to carry on.

Get in touch with Today via email , Twitter or Facebook or text us on 84844.

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