Sweepers are a socially isolated and neglected community of our society. They are engaged in sweeping and cleaning wastes, human sludge, etc. They are commonly known as “methor” in our country, though nowadays in Chittagong city they are called “shebok” (helper or aide). They were named “harijan” (son of God) by Mahatma Gandhi. They are also called “dalit” (suppressed or broken into pieces.)Their service to society never brought them any recognition, rather they are considered as “untouchable” by the society.
There are about 3.5 to 5.5 million sweepers in Bangladesh today. About 300 years ago sweepers were brought to this country by the British colonial rulers. They were mainly from Madras, Kanpur, Hyderabad and some other places of South India. They were the low caste peoples among the Indian Hindu communities and were generally very poor people, and came here with a hope for better life. They were given jobs which involved cleaning public places, removing human sludge from pit latrines etc. Because it is their only profession, it has become their traditional job. Someone born in a sweeper family has no other choice
than becoming a sweeper.
Babul Das (56), a sweeper from Madarbari Shebok Colony in Chittagong, said: “Our children do not get white collar jobs even though they have the qualifications. It would console our heart if even one of us got an official job. But unfortunately it never happens. Sweeping is the only profession, no matter whether we want to stick to it or not. Our destiny is sweeping, though this too is uncertain nowadays.”
In the past, sweepers were forbidden to hire community centres or go to restaurants. Not only that, they were even not allowed to pass by the houses of the elite Hindus. The harijans also could not send their children to schools because they were mistreated as untouchable and were rejected.
They were deprived of healthy housing facilities. Their housing sites were intolerably filthy. There was no gas and electricity connection, and they suffered because of water and sanitation problems. Unavailability of potable water was another severe problem that often created unrest in the community. As a result, the community had to pass miserable times in their day-to-day life. Their rights to civic amenities were always neglected. Thus they always remained socially excluded because of their profession.
The scenario is a bit different nowadays. Since the last 25 to 30 years, dalits have been able to go to restaurants. They can enter people's houses, but are still prohibited in ultra-conservative Hindu families, more so in small towns. On the other hand, housing and occupation are still a matter of anxiety for them. They say that whereas they are supposed to have free accommodation they are paying house rent, which results in increased financial sufferings.
Scarcity of safe drinking water in sweeper colonies all over the country is common. Along with this, inaccessibility to improved latrines has increased their daily sufferings to the utmost. There are no separate facilities for women in their bathing places, while open defecation and other unhygienic practices go on. The authorities have always turned a blind eye to their problems, as a result, the community members suffer from water, sanitation and
hygiene related diseases.
The burning issue among the sweeper community now is their job problem. Jayanti Das (15), an adolescent girl of Madarbari Shebok Colony of Chittagong city, says that employers do not recruit them thinking that it might destroy the company's goodwill if low caste people are recruited. She said distressfully: “We belong to low caste and that's why we are undermined everywhere. When we go to school we are not harassed due to our caste identity, rather we are taught to come out of caste based discrimination. But in practical life we are continuously being discriminated against in the job fields.”
While the educated sweepers are not getting other jobs only because of their inherited occupational identity, others who want to stick to their traditional occupation are also facing discrimination. They are increasingly being deprived of their traditional occupation. People from outside their community are now getting their jobs by paying bribes. As a result, the sweepers are now facing loss of their jobs and livelihoods. Prodip Kumar Das (50), a sweeper of harijan community of Shonapota in Khulna city, said in frustration: “If no option left for us, we'll be bound to do unsocial and illegal works for our survival....at least we have to live!”
As the deprivation in all respects pushed the sweepers to the wall, they had to fight for their survival. With the help of international and local NGOs, many of them now have access to safe water and improved sanitation service. This also motivated them to raise their voice about their housing problems and occupational deprivation and
To protest against discrimination, they formed a number of human-chains in different city centres. Prodip Kumar Das claimed with confidence mixed with pain: “Now we, the sweepers, have learnt about movements, human chains etc. The civic people like you have broken our tolerance, and that taught us to go and fight for our rights.” Now, the light of hope is that different stakeholders and local government representatives are now coming forward to ensure the human and civil rights of sweepers. Thereby, social acceptance is increasing and they are gradually becoming a part of the mainstream society.
The writer works in Water Aid Bangladesh.