Two sanitary workers would periodically arrive at the site and sweep away the layers of dust accumulated on the lid of the manhole. They would then force open the lid to expose the manhole. Putting away the lid, one of them would peer into the darkness of the hole, tie a longish rope around his waist and climb down into the hole with a biggish dirty-looking bucket tied to another rope. Obviously, there were steps leading to the bottom. After sometime the man in the hole would holler and the other one standing by its side would start pulling the bucket up. I could see it was heavy as the man would use all his strength to pull it up. The vessel used to be full of dark gooey muck and would be emptied on a side of the road. The process was repeated several times until the sewer lines were cleared. At the end of it all the man in the hole would emerge from it, dirty and sweaty and the muck sticking to his body. The men would then replace the lid on the hole and leave for the next manhole. They would, however, leave a small mound of black earth to be picked up and taken away later by other sanitary workers.
The practice seems to be prevailing even till today and that too, of all the places, in the capital of the country. A few weeks ago there were at least two reports of sanitary workers being killed as soon as they descended down into manholes knocked out by the noxious gases. The municipal corporations of Delhi are rich and at least a couple of them have mechanical equipment to suck out the muck to clear the sewer lines. But apparently there is lack of coordination among them and, in all probability, the equipment are lying in disrepair for want of proper maintenance. The reports said that the work of cleaning up the manholes is contracted out but the contractors employ daily-wagers on a pittance and make them work without any protective gear – gas masks, gloves or gumboots or whatever. All this is happening in this day and age in the capital of the country seems anachronistic ... and yet life goes on. A man dies in a manhole but there are many others who offer themselves to take his place.
Today manual scavenging is under attack and rightly so. Back then it was all considered normal – something that was not out of the ordinary. I remember a very dirty old man of low caste, a “dalit” in today’s parlance, in soiled clothes would routinely pass by carrying night-soil on his head collected from the area’s service latrines and dump it all in an open-top metal cart parked on the lane that went Eastwards. The same cart he would occasionally take away, I don’t know where, pulled by an equally filthy looking buffalo, presumably to dump the smelly contents in another dump. Sometimes I would see his children of around my age would be sitting on the sharp edges of the cart and seemed to be quite happy to have the ride; the foul smell didn’t seem to bother them despite being in such close proximity of the muck. The same man would periodically come to our house to clean our flush latrine – clearly a rarity in Gwalior more than seventy odd years ago. After he left, my mother would follow him pouring buckets of water on the inner veranda and down the flight of stairs that led out of the house in a bid supposedly to wash away all the infection that he carried.
Looking back one can only wonder at the nonchalance with which such irrational practices as untouchability were accepted by the community. Those who grew up within the caste system never probably spared a thought for the practices that were so dehumanising. A dalit clearing away night soil and carrying it on his or her head to dump it a furlong or two away was accepted as normal and routine even among the educated classes. The practice of carrying night soil on one’s head has largely been discontinued but the abhorrent practice of untouchability continues – in some places with much greater vehemence, especially in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. The vehemence with which the caste system is observed can be judged from a recent report from the south which said a young dalit was badly roughed up by upper caste boys for daring to keep a moustache twirled up at its ends – seemingly a prerogative of the upper castes.