29 July, 2006

Scavangers, Bhangis or Cleaner??

ALOT of my current work is in small towns and villages. One town I work in, and with, closely is a small town in the backwaters of Andhra Pradesh. This little town has a unique and clean little street right next to an otherwise dirty downtown centre; even if the uniqueness is marred somewhat by the unfortunate name of the street — “Scavengers’ street”. Deployment of the term ‘scavangers’ for those who clean our streets and remove human waste is our home-grown terminology; used extensively even in our daily vocabulary. There are any number of government of India reports, press reports and even textbooks that use this unfortunate term freely. Similarly, bhangi is another regrettable term frequently used in the same vein, particularly in the north of the country. The very capital of the country has a ‘Bhangi colony’. Considering we are a country, over half of whose population seems to enjoy nothing more than an open-air defecation, a deprecatory usage of the term (even if it is often unwitting) for those who engage in clearing our surroundings is more than merely ironic. One would think that it is those who soil the milieu that ought to be the object of witting or unwitting derision; and not those who clean up the filth. What is more, in any well-known dictionary, such as Chambers or Oxford, ‘scavenger’ has only one of the two meanings: either those who forage in other people’s rubbish for food or other things, or, animals that feed on dead animals not killed by them. So the term scavenger, its deprecatory undertone or overtone apart, hardly describes the task in question, assuming the term must describe the vocation. What about the other term that we use with equal facility to describe those who help keep our villages, towns and cities clean, namely, Sweepers? Surely the term describes the vocation better? Perhaps; but it is barely any less insensitive. How about ‘janitor’? But a janitor is more truly a building’s caretaker. Mahatma Gandhi meant well and used the term Harijan. But the well meaning usage of the great man today has been reduced to a mere caste equivalent. So then which term describes the vocation best and is yet sensitive and dignified as much to the vocation as to its practitioners? How about cleaners? Those who clean the roads, villages and towns can only be cleaners, right? The term also puts matters in perspective. Those who clean are the cleaners and those who dirty are the ‘dirtiers’. The term is implicitly respectful of those who clean, in contrast to those who ‘dirty’. Will our parliamentarians, when they are not rushing into the ‘well’ of the House next time, pass a Bill banning the usage of terms like scavengers, bhangis and sweepers, at least in government documents? Will all of us, if we consider ourselves enlightened, consider such terms and their regional equivalents, socially, politically and humanly inappropriate? Will we do to these terms what they did successfully in the US to various deprecatory racial terms? We frequently express our concern at the socio-economic development of the underprivileged. But the real development must first happen in our attitudes. It is only when our attitude to cleanliness changes that our attitude to cleaners will change. It is only then will we make our cleaners better paid; only then will we provide full protective gear to those who dive naked into city sewers and manholes for cleaning; only then will we provide gum-boots and gloves and aprons to municipal cleaners who stand knee deep in muck in the undescribably dirty municipal garbage trucks. Also only then will we learn to provide them with ergonomically and sanitationwise superior tools for cleaning in a manner that provides dignity to a labour that this nation needs more than anything else. Yes, more than education, more than health, more than food, our country needs cleanliness. More than our poverty, our illiteracy, and our corruption, it is our filth and squalor that shames us most in the world community. And those who rid of this filth must be treated far better than we do. Yes, we need to learn to celebrate cleaners. So what can we do in concrete terms to give community cleanliness greater dignity? Those of us in suitable positions could begin working with institutions and work places under our care to explore if employees can take turns voluntarily (with points awarded in the performance management system) to clean the work-toilets themselves, once a week, say, on Saturdays. Needless to say, unless those of us who promote such a system are directly involved in such labour, the idea will not pick up. Yes, I am talking about reinventing Gandhi. Can the movement become a part of corporate social responsibility?
(The author is CEO, GMR Varalaskhmi Foundation. Views are personal.)

Snakes in the grass are OK ...Pythons in the mail are not !!

FOREIGNERS love to write about India as a country where skyscrapers abut jhopdis and where the rural poor squat on either side of railway tracks to do the big job every morning. And yet India never mixes up things. When transported from one place to the other, serpents are carried in proper baskets by snake charmers who cannot be mistaken for conductors. In all this byplay of contrasts, the right distance is always maintained so that no one gets an unnecessary shock of the kind that happened at a German post office at Mechernich the other day. There was panic when a 1.5 metre albino python broke free of its packaging. A 28-year-old woman had sold the snake over the internet and was mailing it to the buyer after labelling the package as glass! BBC News quotes the local police as saying, “the staff put the package in the back of the office. All of a sudden, they noticed it moving around and saw a big snake wriggling out of it. A valiant worker wrestled the snake and put it into a container. It is not illegal to send snakes via mail but the woman will be investigated for mistreating animals.” In India, where everything is perceived as maya, we have through the ages maintained this tradition of not mixing up illusions. The story goes that in the early 8th century AD, Adi Shankaracharya was walking with his disciples and telling them that everything was maya. Just then, a bull ran towards the group and all of them climbed up the nearest tree. “If everything is maya, why are we sitting on this tree to escape the bull?”, a disciple asked. “The tree is also maya,” the Shankaracharya said. Ergo, the maya that was the tree was climbed to let the disciples keep a distance from the illusion that was the bull. Now if only the woman had not mixed up maya by transacting the sale of the python on the internet and mailing it, there would have been no need for panic — real or illusory — in the Mechernich post office!