Slum india

Dirty work. The disgusting daily duties of a Dalit


When the Oscar-winning movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ put slum life into the spotlight, India faced an eruption of tourism. Painting an entirely different view of the world portrayed through the dazzling screens of Bollywood, many were now curious to see for themselves the other side or, the ‘real’ India. The slum of Dharavi surrounding Mumbai is Asia’s biggest slum, estimated to be home to over one million residents and it has become the go-to place for slum tours. Although hugely popular, slum tourism has sparked many moral debates.

Whilst some say that it provides a deeper understanding about the everyday lives of some of the world’s poor, many say that it only provides rich tourists an enjoyable trip whereby they can gawp at those living in impoverished conditions and take trophy photographs. But can you really grasp a comprehensive view of the darker side of India from a whistle-stop tour around the labyrinth of a slum? Possibly not. The caste system is sadly, still in full swing in large parts of India. Down at the bottom of the pecking order, is the caste known as the ‘Dalits’, also known as ‘untouchables’. Life for them is not Bollywood business.

The image of the slum tours is a confusing one. It does provide a stark contrast to the more beautiful, mystical image of India that’s painted by the multitude of cinematic sceneries, perfectly suited to postcards. The backdrop of Himalayan Mountains; Rajastani desserts; balmy Goan beaches and tropical jungles – territory of the elusive tigers. These are all frequent pinpoints that dot the tourists’ map alongside historic monuments, temples and the iconic Taj Mahal.

Some tourists have described the slum tours as life changing. Some have claimed them to be the highlight of their holiday. Some have come away perhaps with a distorted view implying that life in the slums didn’t look too bad. It’s easy to be unsure what to make of it.

After all, Mumbai is the buzzing metropolis that is home to some of India’s most wealthy, and in India – there are plenty, having the fourth largest amount of billionaires in the world. In contrast, it’s estimated that at least 55% of Mumbai’s population live in slums, and that doesn’t even include those that sleep on the streets. Given India’s established economic boom and its stronghold as an outsourcing powerhouse, it remains home to an estimated one third of the world’s poor.

India has a complex ethnic makeup – it’s the second most populous country in the world with a population spilling well over 1.2 billion. There are over 1,500 languages spoken, six main religions practiced, and numerous castes that, defined by birth, determine what work should be pursued. Being born into a Brahmin family is widely considered to be good karma. Life is good being a Brahmin.

They are at the top of the caste system, traditionally being teachers and clergymen. In contrast – Dalits are considered to be so filth ridden that in the past they even have to be cautious of where their shadow fell. If just their shadow touched a Brahman, he was allowed to punish them – by death.

The caste system has worked in India for many years, whereby trades are passed through down the generations, keeping order amongst the millions. For those 160 million Dalits, it’s a life of imprisonment and a life of inequality with the most unenviable career prospects. Known as Dalits – this is a name chosen for them that means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’, but they’re also known as untouchable, reflecting the impure industries they work in, making them unclean.

They are at the bottom of India’s caste system. Within the group of Dalits are numerous occupations and other hierarchal structures. A Dalit could be anything from a leatherworker or a manual labourer. Specifically though, the Bhangi sub-caste, are generally restricted to three occupations – sweeping, latrine cleaning, and human scavenging – the latter including the removal of faeces and human corpses. These are the lowest of the Dalits, and are described as ‘outcasts even among outcasts.

Mehtars or Helas are a subdivision of the Bhangi caste and are traditionally from the sweeper caste – often domestic workers that clean the latrines of the middle class houses. They can treated differently to the other domestic workers that wash dishes and scrub floors, as Mehtars and Helas are considered to be the dirtiest of the cleaners. They face discrimination by being treated less-favourably by being expected to use the back entrance, use their own eating utensils when eating the scraps of leftover food they’re given, and not make physical contact with the masters of the house.

Dom, Domba or Chandala are those that work to remove and dispose of human and animal bodies. They possess an important role in the holy city of Varanasi, where millions of families from across the country come to take their dead to the holy river Ganges. The Doms will be responsible for ensuring that the bodies burn properly. Like the medieval times of England where carts would be seen doing the rounds in the morning calling ‘bring out your dead’, doms are also seen prowling the larger cities in the morning, shaking those who sleep on the street to see if they’re alive. If not, they are lifted onto the cart and carried away to be disposed of alongside the numerous amounts of street dogs and other dead animals. Chandala is a derogatory word used to insult people in many places due to the nature of the work.

One form of manual scavenging is the work that many women undertake known as Valmikis, who clean public latrines. They make up the majority of manual scavenger workers and it’s perhaps the most shocking type of work. Typically most Indian toilets have no water connection meaning that the waste remains stagnant. The construction of these dry latrines has now been made illegal due to lack of hygiene, although they still exist in many places where there can have as many as 400 seats. Often armed only with a broom and a tin plate, the workers gather up human faeces into baskets to carry on their heads, transporting them distances of up to four kilometres.

Sometimes, whilst carrying the baskets on their head, faeces escapes onto their hair and face, being not only a horrid and vile experience, but it also puts them at risk from numerous bacterial infections. Often not equipped with the necessary items such as gloves and masks, they’re sometimes expected to use their hands to clean the human waste. Tuberculosis, viral meningitis, hepatitis A, worms and chronic skin and lung diseases especially, is rife among the community.

The practice of using people to manually carry human excreta has been illegal for almost 20 years, although the work continues in many rural parts of India today. Manual scavenging on the other hand, is still legal. Due to a recent television show, the issue has been highlighted and the show’s presenter, actor Aamir Khan has called upon the government to end the practice. Having a celebrity advocate to usher along plans to pass a Bill prohibiting manual scavenging is underway this year, although nothing has come into fruition yet.

The slum tours may provide a snap shot of some of the suffering the lower castes may encounter, but it is an incredibly complicated matter within a country by gigantic magnitude, and Mumbai is ranked up there with some of the world’s wealthiest cities.
In a nation where Gandhi is prized as their national hero where his face a constant reminder on the currency, his messages on upliftment and intolerance seems to have gone a little stale in Indian society. Anti-discrimination laws against these castes are in place, but sadly, despite laws, stigmas still remain as a result of a culture that has been engrained for over 1,500 years. This is life for one out of six Indians.

Date posted: 20th December, 2012

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