Backstory: Why Journalism Should Go Down the Drain

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Much like the subterranean systems that carry our waste away from our sight, media coverage of issues that concern excreta and its disposal are largely subterranean and completely odourless. Take, by way of example, the enormous media attention paid to the flagship project of the present government, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Two basic flaws are in evidence. First, it has been completely overtaken by the persona of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the day of its launch in October 2014, when it had showcased two personalities: M.K. Gandhi (largely represented through his spectacles) and Modi himself. For another, reportage ended up being largely as a litany of new toilets built – without as much as a backward glance to check if these modest facilities  were actually functioning or a passing reference to the men and women who keep them functional.

The fact is that sanitation in India is a complicated business, with the caste system deeply imbricated in it. A poignant excerpt from Shankarrao Kharat’s autobiography, Taral-Antaral, reflected how his father was “crushed flat” by his village duty as a Mahar. A horrific episode recalled in the book describes how Kharat as a boy watched his father go down a well to fish a body out of it, even as a snake slithered into view, filling the boy with high anxiety. It took a militant literary movement like the Dalit Panthers of the 1970s to bring such experiences to the “upper” caste-dominated urban reading classes, but the media to this day has failed in sustaining the momentum to such documentation, which can be seen as a necessary if not sufficient condition to free India from the forced and life-threatening servitude of the faceless manual scavenger. Umakant, an aggregator of media content on Dalit issues, observed to me how the “caste-oriented mindset” of the media pervaded such coverage. Apart from a few exceptions, he noted, he has not come across any media platform that takes keen and continued interest in sustained reporting on this abhorrent practice: “It’s lip service at best.”

So should shit make news? Given this tragic history, can there be two answers to that question? Committed and sustainable coverage on manual scavenging and sanitation is urgently required. The Wire is trying to do this through #Grit, a new series which has so far generated over a dozen pieces and a couple of videos. I cannot vouch for the general popularity of the series, but through conscious and sensitive editorial guidance it has, I believe, already gone some way towards achieving its objective to be a “deep-dive editorial project” that will cover “manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy.”

Five important themes have emerged from the series so far. The first is the broken constitutional compact between citizen and state inherent in guarantee of right to life – a life with dignity. A quarter of a century has passed since a law was enacted specifically prohibiting the engagement or employment of anyone as a manual scavenger. Both this law and its 2013 amendment have failed spectacularly, and the Indian government continues to remain without clarity on even the number of manual scavengers in the country despite the iteration that if you count them in, you can take the issue on.

This confusion over numbers does not surprise, given the shambolic manner in which such enumerations exercises are conducted (‘After 25 Years of Broken Promises, India is Counting its Manual Scavengers’, June 4). There have been several surveys, each of them throwing up a different result. As the piece ‘The 7 National Surveys That Counted Manual Scavengers Thus Far And Their Varied Numbers’ points out, while in 2002-2003 the figure was revised to “nearly 8 lakh (770,338)’,  it stood at 13,639 in a 2013 nationwide survey. The latest counting exercise – which is far from over – indicates that the earlier figure was a myth ( ‘Centre Counts 53,000 Manual Scavengers in India, 4x Higher Than Last Survey’, June 15).

This confusion on numbers is related to the second aspect highlighted in this series, a definitional problem. Definitional confusion is linked to several wide-ranging factors  which include the way people of the community regard themselves and how they in turn are regarded by society at large. In Rajasthan’s Dausa district, The Wire‘s correspondent found that while scavenging is still operational, it is not admitted by authorities (‘For Manual Scavengers of Rajasthan, Rehabilitation Was Only on Paper’, June 8). As one woman poignantly remarked in this piece, “Seven years back, when I started working, I was cleaning the drains manually and till date, I’m doing that way. Nothing has changed in our lives except that the people have stopped us calling ‘Bhangi’ now.”

How fraught definitional issues are came into view when the Bombay high court recently barred the media from using the term ‘Dalit’ in response to a petition filed by a member of the community who was not comfortable being defined as a Dalit. Yet the move triggered a spirited counter response from other Dalits who regard the term as a badge of emancipation and assertion (‘If Community Recognises Itself As ‘Dalit,’ How Can Court Dictate Terms?‘, June 15).

There is no denying, however, that stigma continues to hound those regarded as manual scavengers and mechanisation has not changed this for various reasons, which is the third trope highlighted in this series. In an investigation into suction truck use in two Delhi neighbourhoods (‘Can the Use of Machines Destigmatise Sanitation Work?’, June 7), what came through was that three-fifths of the workforce, even in a mechanised scenario, is caste based. The writer observes, “The use of machines, which presumably acts as a preventive measure against dealing with fecal matter directly, had no impact on how workers were treated. Customers left payment on the ground, and in many instances covered their mouth and faces while communicating with the men.” Another feature, ‘For Manual Scavengers of Rajasthan, Rehabilitation Was Only on Paper’ (June 8), lays bare the cynical manner in which the administration hands over the cleaning job to private contractors that use mechanisation processes and claim a “manual scavenging free” status for its district. The reality is far more complex, as the piece points out. If the blockage is caused by solid waste, it will have to be cleaned manually. There are also many places where the machines cannot be accommodated, and once again contractors get the septic tanks cleaned manually.

The fourth aspect underlined is the disproportionate presence of women in manual scavenging, a reality often overlooked because of disturbing visuals of men climbing into sewer lines. According to one estimation from Uttar Pradesh, 98% of those who clean dry latrines are women. Take this description from an earlier era in Sujatha Gidla’s new book, Ants among Elephants, an excerpt of which is part of this series (‘The ‘Pakis’ of Coastal Andhra: The Men and Women Who Carry Away Human Waste’): “Nearly all of these workers are women…As their brooms wear down, they have to bend their backs lower and lower to sweep. When their baskets start to leak, the shit drips down their faces.”

Terms like “occupational hazards” are totally ineffectual in describing the health ramifications – this is nothing but an occupational death sentence – the fifth area of concern that has emerged from this series. The analysis, ‘What Makes Manholes So Lethal?’ (June 27), argues, “Expecting an unskilled worker and unequipped worker to enter a confined and septic environment to clean it is to wilfully endanger their lives.”

If this series is to achieve its full potential, it would need to build on the process of aggregating voices, experiences, opinion, in order to expose the brutal apathy of caste society. Dr B.R. Ambedkar put it without equivocation when he stated that in this country “a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.”

In times of emergency

For journalists of the time, the emergency was so fearsome an experience that for years thereafter the word came with a capital ‘E’. Along with terms like the ‘Constitution’ and the ‘State’, at least two generations of sub-editors were instructed to refer to it as ‘Emergency’, not just to distinguish the usage of the noun from that of the adjective but to typographically mark its ominous resonance. The anniversary of its declaration – the midnight hour of June 25-26, 1975, ironically echoing the midnight hour of the ‘Tryst with destiny’ 28 years earlier – has inevitably invited commemorations and recollections. The Wire too has done its bit on this score.

Historical recall through media platforms is valuable given its potential to fuel social and political thought and action. Those who remember George Fernandes as an apologist for the Hindutva politics of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era may not even be familiar with his days as a fiery trade unionist. Valuable therefore is this vignette from the time of the emergency in the piece, ‘Remembering George Fernandes As He Was, Before He Lost Himself’ (June 4): “George Fernandes in chains proved more potent than a free George Fernandes.  Every production in court was turned by him into a political campaign. Holding his manacled hands aloft, he would signify defiance with every gesture.” An understanding of why the Socialist Party had failed politically despite the prominent role it played in the 1960s and 70s comes through in ‘Jailed in Baroda Dynamite Case, a Socialist Leader Looks Back on the Emergency’ (republished on June 26).  The question whether it was the emergency that had laid the foundations for the polarising communal politics of today has never gone away, and the exposition, ‘From Emergency to Now: The Wide Arc of a Hack’s Ideological Journey’ (June 27), provides important insights.

But remembering the emergency becomes even more crucial when state repression has become so pedestrian today that people fail to recognise it even as large sections of mainstream media never fail to justify it. There is no declaration of emergency, no evidence of formal censorship, yet everywhere there are signs of state repression and self-censorship. In the last few weeks alone, journalists while on duty have being arbitrarily detained  (‘Journalists Question Police Actions After Two Reporters Arrested in Palghar’, June 27), the homes of human rights defenders have been searched without warrants (‘Haryana Police Under Fire for ‘Illegally’ Raiding Rights Activist’s House’, June 27), and “exceptional laws”, such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, have been used for political purposes.

While the present political status quo claims the status of having fought the emergency, it is in fact refining its template.  As the writer of the piece ‘‘Extraordinary’ Laws Are Becoming Central to the Politics of Repression in India’ (June 28) puts it, “The latest victim of one of our most enduring, exceptional laws – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – are the arrests made in the context of caste-based violence in the Bhima Koregaon town of Maharashtra” (also see ‘Maharashtra Police Arrests Dalits for Violence Against Dalits, Brands Them ‘Naxals’’, June 6; ‘The People’s Fighters: Meet the Five Arrested in the Bhima Koregaon Case’, June 10). The extraordinarily smooth manner in which the focus of police investigation shifted from Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide, local Hindutva leaders who had come under the police scanner for the Bhima Koregaon violence, to these five civil rights activists ought to worry every citizen, the writer iterates, “for they demonstrate the capacity of the state to legally enforce and normalise conditions of exceptionalism…and prey upon ordinary citizens in exercise of their ordinary rights in ‘normal’ times”.

That really is the point. If we recognise the emergency as an “abnormal time” when state repression was the mark of the hour, how do we define this “normal time” that witnesses state repression being taken to even more efficacious levels? From independent journalists it demands a new alertness to the mini-emergencies playing out in the nooks and crannies of the republic and a capacity to draw out and expose the Modi government’s doublespeak. Two videos put out by The Wire on the emergency did that: ‘Watch: Remembering Emergency – and the Student Protests the BJP Doesn’t Talk About’ (June 26) and ‘Jan Gan Man Ki Baat, Episode 264: Emergency – Then and Now’ (June 27).


It must have been the long, frighteningly dusty summer to get normally pampered Delhiite to mimic the protest action (“chipko”) of the courageous women of the nondescript hill village of Reni in Chamoli district, back in the 1970s, and hug trees in the heart of the capital that were fated for the axe to accommodate a new housing project (‘NBCC Should Consider Redrawing Plans Before Felling Trees in South Delhi’, June 27).

The incident brought to mind Pradip Krishen’s anecdote about how he began to actually observe the trees of Delhi more closely after a serendipitous walk through the ridge one mid-February morning, when the backlight provided by the morning sun brought into view the miraculous “points of life” of spring-time revival in the bare twigs about him. He went on to do a field guide on the city’s trees. Instructive therefore to come across The Wire piece, ‘The Case of the Confusing Kanikonna Trees’ (June 26) – the Indian laburnum – which traditionally blooms in April in Kerala, around the festival of Vishu, and a little later, say mid to late-May, in northern India. Now, it seems, these trees are getting increasingly confused about when they should put out their wondrous grape-like clusters of the brightest yellow. A “cardiogram” which illustrated their now erratic blooming was a valuable addition to the text and seemed to point to the deprecations of climate change. Wonder whether the winter-deadened twigs in the ridge, that Kishen had written about, are just as confused about when to do spring.

We need to listen harder to what our trees are telling us about our lives (with a little help from stories such as this), but for that to happen they need to be around in the first place.

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