Savanur and Manual Scavengers: Another loud cry for social justice

On July 20th Deccan Herald ran a disturbing news item. Manual scavengers from the Bhangi caste in Savanur had covered themselves with human excreta to protest their impending eviction and a denial of water by the Town Municipal Corporation (TMC). There were other similar reports in the Kannada press (both print and electronic). The back-story to the incident is incomplete in media reports. This write-up is an effort to document the facts surrounding the protest.

Savanur was ruled by Nawab Abdul Majid Khan II till Indian independence. Eight decades ago, the Nawab had granted land to the Bhangi community on which they could build their houses. On this land are four houses which make up the homes of seven Bhangi families. From the days of the Nawab these families have been working as manual scavengers in the town of Savanur. This land is now prime property in Savanur.

The TMC passed a resolution that transferred property granted by the Nawab into the hands of the Town Municipal Corporation. The resolution in-turn was used to declare that a “commercial complex” would come up at the site of these Bhangi homes.

The community made several requests to the authorities to stop their eviction. The TMC had by this time made their intentions of grabbing the land clear. Government officers gave a token assurance that the families would be moved to homes in other locations under the “Ashraya” scheme. This was nothing more than a way to rationalize their eviction.

On July 17th 2010, their common water connection was disconnected. The TMC claims it was for non-payment of dues and an illegal connection. Neighbours denied them the use of street taps and forced them to collect water from drain water around the public taps. In response to a complaint filed on 19th of July 2010, the Assistant Commissioner demanded that the families pay a fine of 2000Rs to have the water reconnected. Such a demand scoffs at both their economic status and their nature of work (manual scavenging).

On July 20th 2010, the community out of desperation protested by smearing themselves with human excrement. Once their protests reached the news wires, the TMC official promptly provided independent connections to each of their homes.

Why was it disconnected in the first place? The Departments of Municipal Administration (DMA) has been mandated to allocate 22.75% of ALL grants for the welfare of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe citizens. Explicitly mentioned within this scheme are funds that are to be allocated for providing drinking water connections [source]. The fact that they were isolated and targeted proves that it was an intimidatory tactic to force eviction. The scapegoat for the incident is the Chief Officer who happens to be a Dalit. He will be transferred for following orders.

To make matters worse another ugly layer to the problem is that children are being sucked into the caste labour of manual scavenging. A 13 year old boy has taken to manual scavenging after his father’s deteriorating health forced him to stop the caste labour. The Child Rights commission is making a suo-motto intervention but their track record makes us fear that the case will end up being diluted.

What the families were put through was shocking and inhuman. The general silence from the civil society to such apartheid by the state government and elected officials was worrying. A blatant land-grab from the most oppressed of people demanded a far stronger response. While most of us slept over the issue, certain religious institutions used it as an opportunity to declare their concern and adopt the children of these homes. Yes…adopt…heaping more insult to their injury. Pramod Muthalik of the Ram Sene made a visit to the homes. The Kannada daily Prajavani titled his entry “Graha Pravesha” (house warming).

Incidents like those in Savanur are not isolated. We need to begin joining the dots on forms and practices of untouchability, it’s beneficiaries and how it’s being used politically. The families in Savanur are the visible tip of the iceberg. Media reports suggest that up to 80% of the villages around Savanur have dabi and pit latrines which need to be cleared by manual scavengers. The situation is no different in many parts of the country.

The denial of water and the attempt to evict these Bhangi families was a deliberate and systematic attempt to grab their land. The town municipality, District and Taluk administration are all parties to this incident.  We leave you with two questions. What is your response? What do you suggest should be done?

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