“If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work.”

BBC News reports on dalits in India whose job it is to empty non-flush toilets and carry away the shit for disposal.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Indian government to end “manual scavenging” – the practice of cleaning human waste by low-caste communities – in a new report.

The practice is banned by law in India, but it is rampant and activists say nearly 10 million are involved in this demeaning work which opens them to prejudice and abuse.

The report calls on the government “to ensure that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice”.

Check out the BBC story, because it’s full of vivid and tragic photos.

Munnidevi of the state’s Etah district says she does not get any money for her work. “Sometimes they give two rotis (home-made bread), sometimes just one. One house did not give me anything for two or three days. So I stopped going there. If they give me nothing, why should I go? Then they came to threaten me: ‘if you do not come, we will not let you on our land. Where will you get food for your animals?’ We own four buffaloes. I went back to clean. I had to.”

“The panchayat (village council) hires people to work as water suppliers, messengers, clerks, garbage collectors, and this work that I do – cleaning toilets,” says Anil of Dhule district in the western state of Maharashtra. “If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work. You are not told this directly, but it is what you are hired to do and what is expected, even from the villagers. If there is excrement to clean, they will come and call us to do it.”

“A village council brought our family here [from our native village in Maharashtra] to clean the dry toilets, water toilets, and open defecation. I collect all the excrement and throw it elsewhere. We actually want to go back home. We don’t like it here,” says Rajubai. “Because of this work, my health has declined. I eat very little food. It is very dirty work. But people are saying, the council will not allow us to leave and that is why they are not giving us the full payment.”


The Human Rights Watch report starts from here.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Human history is full of sick ironies, but with the possible exception of the way Israel treats the Palestinians, India may hold the Nobel prize in irony. They struggle mightily to overthrow the Raj, because Indians were not being treated as fully human in their own land, and then when they succeed, they turn around and pull this caste bullshit.

  2. says

    If anyone ever wants to see what it looks like when the powerful completely win a culture war, India is a good place to start. Libertarians don’t seem to realize it, but it’s what they dream about.

  3. quixote says

    This post gave me a fullblown flashback. One of my most vivid memories from visiting India decades ago was the look in the eyes of one of the sweepers.

    His job was dealing with a public toilet I was walking past. I can’t imagine who would use one of them because there were piles of shit everywhere inside (I could see partway into the door) and plenty outside from people who no doubt didn’t want to contend with the conditions inside. Indian food can be hard on the intestines, so the piles were not necessarily well-formed. He was sweeping this unspeakably foul glop with one of those short no-handle brooms. He was avoiding looking at anyone.

    (I asked someone once why they didn’t at least have longhandled brooms, so the sweepers didn’t have to squat right down next to the shit. Well, proper handles were only for proper people. It just was Not Done to give the scum of the earth long handled brooms. Really. That was the answer.)

    Well, I must have been staring (little horrified Western white kid), because he looked up at me. His eyes were completely glazed. There was so much suffering, so far beyond endurance, there was nothing left. I’ve only ever seen that expression one other time, in a picture of a person who’d had his hands chopped off during the terror in Sierra Leone.

    There are aspects of Indian culture which are a big contribution to humanity. And there are aspects which annihilate people like the sweepers, like widows, like so many millions there. It’s a vast, huge, gigantic human rights issue.

  4. RJW says

    The Hindu Caste system is one of the most morally repugnant institutions ever adopted by any society anywhere in history. It has never received the widespread opprobrium that it deserves, and so many Indians are oblivious to its egregious human rights violations, it’s divinely ordained, of course. BTW, the original Sanskrit term for ‘caste’, means ‘color’.

    There’s a decades-old quote from the Indian historian Romila Thapar–

    “What’s immutable in India is not race or religion, but caste.” Let’s hope for millions of the lowest caste Indians in this, and future generations, history proves her wrong.

  5. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I’m curious (not quite the right word….) about why there was, for instance, such outrage over apartheid in SA those many years ago, but similar, or worse, conditions around the world are summarily ignored?

    What is it about our culture (or whatever) is it that causes us to be so selective?

    …and don’t get me started on all the inequities we routinely ignore here in the US.

  6. RJW says

    @8 Ophelia,

    Probably for the same reasons that the some sections of ‘Left’ are reluctant to criticise Islamic practices, the fear of being labelled a racist and cultural relativism, in other words, a double standard.

    @7 Crimson Clupeidae,

    Let’s be realistic, a group of Isolated Caucasian racists in Southern Africa is an easy target in contrast to China or India’s human rights violations. There’s a lot of cheering from Right Wing commentators in regard to the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs (because they happen to be Muslim). The probability that Han racism is a factor, is ignored.

  7. says

    Oh I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s anything like that simple. (I’ve never seen anyone babbling about “Hinduphobia” while defending the caste system, or in fact defending the caste system at all.)

  8. RJW says


    Are you referring to Hindus or non-Hindus who are defending the caste system?

    I’ve encountered Hindus online and in conversation who defended the caste system on religious grounds, or actually denied that there was any problem on the basis that there were laws against discrimination based on caste. The use of the term ‘Hinduphobia’ is increasing on the MSM and online, it was only a matter of time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *