Published: 02nd October 2018
Ever heard of the Sangh started by Mahatma Gandhi? This is it
The Harijan Sevak Sangh founded by Gandhiji in 1932 has been fighting the social evils of manual scavenging and untouchability for close to 90 years now. Parvathi Benu finds out more
Is it wrong to say that manual scavenging and untouchability go hand in hand? After all, it is considered to be the dirtiest of jobs and is predominantly done by people who belong to the lower castes. The role that Mahatma Gandhi has played to eradicate these from India is huge, especially in the pre-Independence era.
Manual scavengers who belonged to the Bhangi caste lived in the slums next to the Sabarmati river, very close to Gandhi's Sabarmati Ashram. Looking at their travails, in a bid to uplift them, he started the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1932. Today, the organisation has branches in 26 states across India, with research centres, schools and hostels for the Dalit children and has done massive work over the years for the welfare of the community.
Prior to Gandhi's 149th birthday, we got in touch with Laxmi Dass, the organisation's Senior Vice President. Working with the NGO for close to 35 years now, he had a lot to share about the work they've been doing for the past 86 years. "Gandhiji started this organisation mainly to remove untouchability and lessen the difficulties of the members from the manual scavenging community. The condition of their slums was pathetic and no one dared to set foot in there and help them out," he says. Because of this very reason, Bhangi Kasht Mukti, a programme to help the Bhangi community was among the first initiated for them.
Digging below ground, inventively
The initial years were among the toughest. "It was difficult to even imagine dry latrines and scavenging-free societies in the 30s," says Dass. A lot of ingenuity was needed to stop the scavenging. Back then, the scavengers used buckets made out of bamboo to take the human excreta out. The first thing they did was to replace them with metal buckets and also equip the scavengers with shovels and brooms with long sticks to make sure that they did not touch the human waste by hand. "Gandhiji and his followers also made a lot of smart gadgets in that period to lessen the sufferings of these people," Dass adds.
My fight against untouchability is a fight against the impure in humanity
One of the other revolutionary ideas initiated by Gandhi was the introduction of the two pit toilet system, which is in use even today in Sulabh toilets. Here, toilets are connected to two pits, which are used alternatively. When one pit fills up, excreta is switched to the other one and in a period of time, the excreta gets converted to manure. "He also initiated the idea of using less water to clean the latrines by introducing a slope in the toilets. This way, the pits filled up at a slower pace," says Dass.
The Harijan Sevak Sangh also runs Safai Vidyalaya next to Sabarmati Ashram, which is a research centre where studies and experiments to help out scavengers happen regularly. They also conduct health and nutrition-specific training for Anganwadi teachers, sanitation inspectors and various other workshops for individuals.
Going the Gandhian way
Taking a walk down memory lane, Dass feels that the situation has improved so much as far as manual scavenging and untouchability are concerned. He is certainly proud that head loading of human excreta has ended and untouchability is no longer as bad as it was. But he observes a few issues even today that are hindering its complete eradication. "Untouchability and scavenging are illegal. But still, some people do continue to practice the former. This change can only come through an alteration in the human attitude," he says, adding, "If the conservative nature of people continues, change will not happen."
Train right: Harijan Sevak Sangh is running an Industrial Training Centre at Chennai
He also has a few suggestions to improve the sanitation scene in the country. "Mandatorily, every house must have toilets. Every 10-15 metres, there must be some arrangements to dispose of waste. Toilets must be there, especially for ladies. The government has to take necessary steps towards this," he observes. And the solution? None other than the Gandhian way of protest. "That is the best way to address issues and to educate, persuade and sensitise people," he adds.
Continuing the good work
Harijan Sevak Sangh has also built hostels and schools for the Dalit students throughout the country. There, they're trained in different vocations. Did you know that former president KR Narayanan was an alumnus of the NGO's Ashram School? "He used to say this as a matter of pride to people even in his public meetings," says Dass, adding, "His is not an isolated case. Many people have had their lives transformed because of this."
Despite all this, Dass observes that unemployment in the country is forcing many young people to go back to dirty their hands again and he is quite upset about it. "It is up to the government now to create more employment opportunities and bring a change in the human attitude. For that, it is high time that there is more scope for social mixing between the upper and lower castes," he says, hopeful of building a country that Bapu always dreamt of.
Gobichettipalayam in Chennai is the first scavenging free municipality in India. Laxmi Dass tells us the story of GS Lakshman Iyer, the brain behind this initiative. He freed Dalits from debts, ensured that they lived in comfortable houses on clean, wide streets and built modern toilets. Recently, his statue was inaugurated in Chennai by the Tamil Nadu Governor