New Delhi, India — Vimla Lal performs India’s foulest job. For the equivalent of 40 cents a day, she trudges house to house scraping human excrement into a tattered basket she carries through the streets on her head.
Lal, who guesses her age as 30, hates her work, but Hinduism’s rigid social hierarchy has condemned her to follow in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents as a nights oil collector. She began nights oil scavenging when she was 8.
“People call me bad names. They insult my mother and daughter and call them whores,” said Lal outside a refuse dump in the slums of Delhi.
Only 20 percent of India’s urban homes have flush toilets and the majority of city dwellers either uses buckets or simply defecate in the open. A nationwide underground sewer system would be prohibitively expensive for a poor country like India. Most cities have only a limited sewer system and villages have only the open fields.
Experts say there are more than 600,000 nights oil scavengers, or “bhangis,” in India.
Some, like Lal, are privately employed, visiting as many as 150 houses a day. The rest are government and refuse into truck to be carried to dumping grounds.
“JT may not be born again,” Mohandas K. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi once said, “but if it happens, I would like to be born in a family of scavengers so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying head loads of nights oil.”
Fired by Gandhi’s ideal, sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak founded a society 16 years ago to eradicate the profession by persuading city dwellers to install regular toilets.
Pathak designed a lowcost, pittype latrine that converts extrement into harmless manure, and named his organization after it the Svlabh Shauchalaya Sansthan the Easy Toilet Society.
His society, based in the Bihar state capital of Patna, declared a “Decade for the Liberation of Nliberate” some 2,000 scavengers in Bihar.
The Easy Toilet Society has constructed public latrines in Patna and other cities, providing work for “liberated” scavengers as latrine attendants. The latrines also helped reduce the problem of public defecation a widespread practice.
But for the lucky bhangis who get a job cleaning society’s public latrines or sweeping streets for more than twice their accustomed salary old habits and traditional prejudice die hard.
Many, like 35 year old Mahinder Ram, are alcoholics. “If you don’t drink you can’t do that dirty job,” said Ram, who gave up scavenging 10 years ago. “If you’re in your full senses you can’t do it.
“My life has definitely changed. But I still feel at times I’m treated like a scavenger.”
For hundreds of bhangis in Delhi, help is yet to come.
“Since independence there have been many achievements, but for the class of scavengers there has been nothing,’ said Rattan Lal Balmiki, 55, who heads a scavengers union in the capital. “A cobbler takes one rupee for shining shoes, but a man who carries nights oil on his head for a whole month doesn’t get more than two rupees.”
Balmiki, a former scavenger who joined the city government to represent his profession, said, “The Easy Toilet Society is the one organization that can tackle this problem in India.”
But the society, which has a professional staff of more than 1,000 in six states, is hampered by lack of government support.
“The government of India is engaged in doing big work like space projects, but not this,” Pathak said. “Had Ghandi been alive this project would have got top priority.
In Bihar, state government subsidies have helped persuade thousands of city dwellers to convert their bucket latrines into “easy toilets” designed by thak.
Pathak’s public toilets have been used to produce biogas from decaying excrement, which in Patna is used to generate electricity to light a 2%mile stretch of the city’s main road.
Pathak said he is confident that scavenging can be eliminated by 1995. But to reach that goal he estimated 400,000 “easy toilets” would have to be built every year.