India’s ‘manual scavengers’ rise up against caste discrimination

by Shai Venkatraman

A Dalit woman stands outside a dry toilet located in an upper caste villager’s home in Mainpuri, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The village has witnessed major violence against those who have tried to leave the profession of ‘manual scavenging’. Photo: Shai Venkatraman/IPS

Watching Bittal Devi deftly weave threads of different colours into a vibrant patchwork quilt, it’s hard to imagine that this 46-year-old’s hands have spent the better part of their life cleaning toilets.Born in Sava, a village in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, Devi is from a community that, down the centuries, has worked as ‘manual scavengers’.A caste-based profession, it condemns mostly women, but also men, to clean human excreta out of dry latrines with their hands, and carry it on their heads to disposal dumps. Many also clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains with no protective gear.