Nilu does not like it when people ask him his full name. He has a strange sense of disassociation with his family name, Valmiki. Valmikis are a Scheduled Caste community in Uttar Pradesh who have traditionally been engaged in manual scavenging. Nilu has been lucky during this Kumbh. He is a meth, or head of 12 manual scavengers. He doesn’t have to scoop out faeces himself. In Kumbh of 2007, he was not so lucky.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 prohibits carrying night soil on head and seeks demolition of dry latrines in the country. Following a Supreme Court order to implement the law, Uttar Pradesh had committed to complete conversion of dry latrines into flush ones by March 2011. Yet about 28,000 dry latrines have been built in the Kumbh area. The mela authorities have also recruited 5,000 people to keep these toilets clean, apart from cleaning health clinics and the maze of roads in the mela area. They are set to recruit 5,000 more. Most of these sanitation workers are manual scavengers like Nilu and are from Bhadwari, Majhima, Tandwari and Baveru blocks of Banda district.
Even the census of 2011 had found that the state has about 200,000 dry latrines. Uttar Pradesh is not the only one to violate the Act. In 2002-2003, the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admitted that there were 9.2 million dry latrines across 21 states and Union Territories, and 676,000 people lifted human excreta for a living. However, when Safai Karamchari Andolan filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2003, most states denied employing scavengers and claimed that most of them had been rehabilitated in alternative professions. But the Maha Kumbh Mela exposes the lie.
During Kumbh of 2007, sanitation workers formed a union and protested against irregular and poor pay. This year, formation of union has been barred. They are being paid Rs 156 for working 24 hours and are recruited through agents. They do not have a fixed contract. This is when upper caste people like the Kushwaha and Thakur, who are taking up sanitation works lately, are recruited through Zilla Parishads and are paid Rs 15,000 a month for fixed working hours. Valmiks come to the fair with families. Their quarters are on the fringes of the mela area near open drains and water outlets. They do not have toilets for themselves and are not allowed to use toilets made for pilgrims. “We are untouchables. No matter how much the politicians give speech about us, people always call us chhote log and treat accordingly,” says Nilu.