Comrade Divya’s movie premiered on 26th February in MMPreview theatre in Chennai.
The viewer enters the movie with unease — it is called ‘Kakkoos’ after all. But very soon into the movie, the initial unease pales. The viewer is treated to relentless scenes of sanitation workers doing their everyday work — the work of cleaning human excreta in the open, and from toilets without flush systems. They do it with their hands and brooms. Manual scavenging is illegal under an Act of 2013. What the movie drives home is that manual scavenging is not a thing of the past, happenning somewhere else. It is here; it is everywhere around us. The line between sanitation work and manual scavenging is blurred. If there is a dead dog, a dead pig, or a dead man, the sanitation worker has to clean it with her bare hands. The supervisor says this is her work, he can’t hire another person to do this work.
The movie was made by Divya and a crew consisting of Gopalakrishnan and Palani Kumar as cameramen, M K Pagalavan as editor, R Thanikkodi writing lyrics for songs, and R Prabhakar setting the music. None of them took any money. Cameraman Palani Kumar said that his camera was repeatedly smeared with shit in the process of filming — and that this was unavoidable while filming the work of manual scavengers. The budget for the movie was roughly 3 lakh rupees, all of which was raised through donations given by connections on Facebook.
The screening was attended by families of three men who died while cleaning septic tanks. The screening was also attended by Bhasha Singh, author of the book ‘Unseen’ about manual scavengers.
This movie shows that Swach Bharat has turned manual scavenging into the problem of building toilets. But these toilets do not have sanitation — they are not connected to sewer lines, and do not have running water. Essentially they are dry toilets, which sanitation workers have to clean, their work pushed into these suffocating toilets, instead of the outdoors. Bhasha Singh explained that Swach Bharat will push millions of people into manual scavenging, that it is pushing them into gas chambers. These millions are Dalit, and Swach Bharat is anti-Dalit.
The film too brought out the fact that manual scavenging is a problem of caste, class and gender. Sanitation work is very feminized, because women are easier to control. This work is done by people for whom all other avenues are closed. And generation after generation, Dalits find themselves in this line of work. Today when a Dalit child goes to school, they are humiliated, to an extent that they do not want to go to school any more. When a Dalit youth seeks employment, they are directed towards sanitation work. Very often, sanitation workers do not get paid in time. Sometimes, as a result, they take up the additional work of cleaning septic tanks, risking their lives. The film describes the case of Babu, who died while cleaning a septic tank at the residence of a retired inspector general of police on March 30,
Unfortunately, the fight against manual scavenging has also had weaknesses, says the narrator in the film. While left movements ignore the aspect of caste, Dalit movements ignore the question of class.
Sanitation workers have long been fighting to have their jobs regularized. But many workers interviewed in the film say that they do not have any employment record. They do not sign attendance registers. The contractors do not want to maintain records, because in case of death, they do not want to be held responsible for employing the worker.
In addition, these workers face disrespect and ostracization from society. Several workers interviewed describe how they are not served at tea shops, and how they are not even given water. They also face housing discrimination. Housing for sanitation workers is typically
provided outside the city. The film shows a housing settlement of sanitation workers in Virudhunagar, where there is constant smoke from burning in the nearby dumping ground. The government provides housing to sanitation workers in areas with no access to schooling, transportation or even sanitation. The film brings out the irony that the workers who clean the cities we live in are not provided sanitation services by the municipality.
The film also points out gaping holes in the law of 2013. If a worker performs sanitation work with gloves, it is not considered unlawful; picking up sanitary napkins is not covered by the law. And the earlier law of 2003 did not bring about a single conviction.
The government machinery is totally opposed to doing any justice for manual scavengers. The 2013 law requires the state to rehabilitate manual scavengers. The first step is to determine the number of workers who do manual scavenging. After a survey, the state of Tamil Nadu found just 462 manual scavengers, which is an absurdly small
figure. After all, every sanitation worker does some manual scavenging! The law mandates that victims of manual scavenging be given a state compensation of Rs 10 lakh. Yet, the Tamil Nadu government fought a legal battle, all the way up to the Supreme Court, to exclude deaths of workers under private contractors!
During Bhasha Singh’s talk after the screening, she said this movie should evoke anger, not tears. It is a political fight, and it has to be fought. One has to fight the politics of Swach Bharat, which says that the solution to the problem is to build toilets. One has to fight the politics which says that this problem can be solved by spreading awareness among sanitation workers to not enter septic tanks and manholes. She said that the demand cannot be to mandate safety equipment. The demand must be a declaration that making a person enter a septic tank or a manhole is nothing less than murder.