Some images do not disturb

CBI-employed manhole workers in Noida
CBI-employed manhole workers in Noida

guest post by S. ANAND

There are times when our critical antennae do not perk up. We do not wish to decode certain signs because we are all implicated in them. Following the 14 September blasts in Delhi, suddenly the media found a new value in ragpickers, street vendors, auto drivers and others who live on the fringes of the city and are generally looked down upon by people who inhabit apartments, blogs, cars (and autos, I must add).

Suddenly, by 15 September, ragpicker Krishna was canonized as a ‘hero’ by the media, the police and the state (the Delhi government claims credit for saving some lives with its ‘eyes and ears’ policy). Yet, Times of India prefaced its report about Krishna thus:

Ragpickers are the smelly boys in tattered clothes whom everyone quickly passes by. Even street dogs, subconsciously aware of their lowly status and often confusing them for thieves, chase them in shabby bylanes.

Krishna was rewarded with Rs 50,000, and we were told, was to be made an “honorary special police officer” at the Delhi police headquarters. That’s a dreadful tokenism. There are an estimated three lakh youth in Delhi, mostly children, who collect garbage from homes and ensure that unsegregated waste is safely disposed. Residents and offices grudgingly give them Rs 30 a month or sometime Rs 50 (if they climb a stair). The state offers them nothing. If they stopped work for five days, many in Delhi may die of methane burst—more lives may be lost than in ‘terror’ blasts all year long. In this invisibilised sense, Krishna and thousands of non-citizens like him have been protecting and saving the lives of hundreds of ‘citizens’.

Most ragpickers die young. That however does not seem like heroism to the media. Or the state that simply has washed its hands of the task of scientific disposal of waste and gloats over a belated, pointless trip around the moon. Scores of well-funded NGOs seek to ensure that the ragpickers are not harassed by police, that they get the right price for the scrap they collect, sell and recycle—the Gandhian logic is of ‘ameliorating’ their conditions of work but not ensuring that such work is not done at all in the most hazardous manner.

To come back to Krishna: what did he do, or was rather made to do, on 14 September? According to the Times report:

Krishna, 20, saw wires dangling out from a garbage bin. He examined it and felt there was something suspicious. He immediately alerted beat constable Suresh Kumar. When Kumar came with Krishna to the Children’s Park at India Gate, the bomb was still ticking. He asked Krishna to take out the bomb and immediately alerted the staff.

Clearly, Krishna had been forced to jeopardize his life by an irresponsible policeman. If Krishna had died, few would have perhaps noticed. And ragpickers have indeed died rummaging garbage. The Hindustan Times reported a case from Aligarh where Shakeel, a ragpicker, was critically injured while at work. In another case in Mumbai a 15-year old ragpicker was raped last year. Ragpickers are routinely harassed by various powerful people, especially the police, and this is the ‘gap’ NGOs raise funds for and redress.

A few months ago, something equally bizarre went unremarked; again in Delhi. When the CBI took over the Arushi-Hemraj murder cases in June 2008, the media and civil society seemed relieved. Before the infamous nacro analyses, the first major public act the CBI was involved with was the dredging of the sewer lines near the Jalvayu Vihar residence of Rajesh Talwar in Noida’s Sector 25 on 6 June 2008.

According to one report quoting a CBI official: “Labourers were… hired to search the drains near the house for the murder weapon.” News channels that night beamed images of manhole workers entering and emerging out of sewers. Newspapers even carried pictures on Page 1 the following day, with not a word about the ongoing case in the Delhi High Court seeking a ban on manhole workers entering sewers, and seeking mechanization of such labour. The CBI had clearly hired private workers (not belonging to the Delhi Jal Board) for the job.

Every year, according to the report I had filed for Tehelka, an estimated 22,327 Dalits die in India cleaning sewage. The CBI, in sending bare-bodied men to dredge the sewers for the murder weapons in the Arushi-Hemraj case, in turn came close to committing murder. But the quest for the killers of Arushi (if not Hemraj) assumes greater cultural value than the lives of unknown manhole workers who anyway die like flies.

The recent Madras High Court ruling, in response to a Public Interest Litigation petition, saying: “No human being should be allowed to get into sewerage and drainage lines to clear blocks,” hardly kindled societal or media interest in the issue. The ruling will be routinely ignored, as was a similar ruling from the Gujarat High Court in February 2006, which said “unless it is absolutely necessary to have sewage cleaning operation done through a human agency, none of the civic bodies in the state will now employ human agency to carry out drainage cleaning operation.”

A recent TV commercial has been peddling us another dangerous image for some time now. A ‘cute’ child (girl/boy?) is taught how to snap her fingers. She is sometimes able to achieve the ‘clack’ sound, sometimes not. She keeps trying. Once she is practising the snap in a public park. An old ‘respectable-looking’ (retired) man, clad in white kurta pyjama, is relaxing on a bench in the park and nodding off. At a distance, in the background, a brown uniform-clad sweeper is doing his job. But only apparently. Facelessly, he approaches the bench where the respectable senior citizen has dozed off. There’s a close-up of the leather wallet jutting out of the pyjama pocket of the man in white. Just as the faceless sweeper sweeps his way closer to the man, and just when we think he is going to commit the crime of stealing the wallet, the girl – innocently, cutely unaware of this unfolding scenario – manages to successfully snap her fingers. The old man snaps awake in time, and the faceless sweeper slinks away, ‘pretending’ to continue with his work.

Then the bottomline of this wordless commercial tells us: Salah hamaari, fayda aapka (‘Our solutions, for your benefit’). Indian Overseas Bank. We are told ‘our’ money is safe with IOB. Without using any words, the 40-second spot in one sweep paints the entire community involved with the task of keeping our public places clean as chors/thieves out to pick the pockets of unsuspecting, ‘respectable’ citizens. Needless to say, suppose an MCD sweeper seeks to open a savings account with an IOB branch, or any bank for that matter, it’s not likely an easy task as is often the case. The labouring classes are not seen as potential ‘customers’ by banks,

Advertisements that peddle the worst images are often celebrated by the audience and peers for their ‘recall value‘. The 18-second Radio Mirchi TV commercial made the audience believe that manhole work can also be fun, if you are listening to Radio Mirchi. A few years ago, a Pepsi TV commercial featuring cricket players romanticized the labour of a child selling Pepsi, emerging from a manhole in the field as the players go into a huddle. (See “The Fizz of Child Labour“.)

It is not enough to blame the media for producing/ reinforcing stereotypes. The world of television, cinema, advertisements and journalism borrows these images from a society that treats ragpickers, sweepers and manhole workers as non-people.

It is easier for even that shrinking minority in society that asks questions to demand justice in the Jamia Nagar encounter case; it is that which is allowed to pass unnoticed that’s scarier. Even for the questioning class some questions are untouchable.

We, as primarily passive consumers of the labours of the ragpickers, sweepers and manhole workers can be nothing but passive spectators unruffled by the images of the sweeper in the IOB advertisement, the picture of a manhole worker being forced to dredge out the murder weapon from noxious slush in the Arushi-Hemraj case, or Krishna saving lives on 14 September being a human-interest story for journalists.

(S. Anand is co-founder, Navayana. Contact: anand dot navayana at gmail dot com)

4 thoughts on “Some images do not disturb”

  1. very disturbing. thanks for this piece.

    from this october 2, chandigarh has been declared a plastic free city, a move that has elicited much praise for being environment friendly. all the media coverage is focussed on the civic minded middle class who are willing to put up with ‘inconvenience’ for the sake of the environment and the ‘violaters’ whose photos appear in the newspapers often with a purposeful tagline of ‘where is the admn in this case?’ are all street vendors and hawkers. this piece makes me think about the rag pickers and the garbage collectors who surely have to deal with much worse now without plastics which at least allows for some separation of dangerous items like glass pieces. this small ‘middle class city’ with the highest per capita income in the country does not ask residents to separate garbage, has no compost pits and the land fill in the city is at its outskirts, where the poor and labourers live. The master plan of this ‘planned city’ has stipulated that labour reside outside its sectoral system. the coming years are going to see both the landfills and the poor pushed out further as the city expands.


  2. The appeal below is relevant to the points raised by Janaki:

    October 22, 2008
    The Chairperson
    State Human Rights Commission
    Thiruvarangam, 143,Kumarasamy Raja Salai,
    Chennai-600 028.

    Sub: Government not acting swiftly to (a) ban plastic carry bags and (b)non implementation of source segregation of garbage in Tamilndau – to be seen as Human rights and child rights violation.

    Dear Sir,

    It is submitted that INFORSE-IDL is an Advocacy organization for the cause of children, specifically the underprivileged and wish to submit the following points for your urgent consideration and immediate action.

    There is rapid increase in middle class population who naturally are the biggest consumers of goods and services. There is rapid urbanization happening throughout our state. These trends are giving rise to generation of huge amounts of garbage both degradable as well as non-bio degradable. Both the above trends are causing great amount of human rights and child rights violations.


    1)For the past decade or so, plastic carry bags especially the thinner varieties are being used widely by all sections of people throughout the country. The use has been much more prominent in states like Tamilnadu which are economically progressive compared to other states.

    2).The thinner verieties of plastic carry bags when disposed thoughtlessly get scattered all around and block all the sewer lines and storm water drains in cities and municipalities.

    3)When these blocks happen, sewer overflows and sewer workers are forced to get into manholes and sewer lines to remove these blocks. Due to contact with sewerage, these workers get all types of ailments,injuries and diseases and many have died due to injestion of toxic gases in the past.

    4)These plastic bags also block free flow of rain water and also float around waterbodies giving rise to unimaginable growth in mosquito population.

    5)Growth of mosquito population in freshwater bodies leads to escalation of malaria, Dengue, Chikungunia while blocks in sewer lines and mixing of fresh water with dirty water leads to various ailments like Filariasis, Dysentery and several other diseases.

    6)While such diseases strike at regular intervals, its impact is felt maximum by economically and socially deprived communities especially children who would be malnutritioned and would not have the resistance to overcome the same. Many children from BPO and marginalized communities either die or unable to lead a healthy life due to this man made disaster.

    7)Similarly blockages of both natural and constructed rain water drains causes flooding of low lying areas and this in turn affects life, property and dwelling of the the poorest sections of the society more than others. This puts a huge economic burden on these marginalized families.

    8)It is pertinent to note that such pollution consequent to high consumption levels are not created by deprived communities but only economically better off sections of the society. The marginalized communities are only at the receiving end of all round indifference.

    9)It is also pertinent to note that Government’s Vector control programs become ineffective when Government is inactive with reference to the policy on use of polythene carry bags. Not banning such non-environment friendly practice or not coming out with a clearcut policy till date on this most critical issue should be viewed as a serious human rights and child rights issue.


    1)Similar to the issue of plastic bags, there has been rapid increase in generation of waste and all waste is dumped together in both marked and unmarked dumping yards throughout the state.

    2)Along with biodegradable wastes , several types of urban wastes like plastic, wooden and metal scraps, discarded condoms, sanitary napkins, industrial wastes like chemicals,oil, electronic and computer scraps, hospital wastes, animal wastes etc are all clubbed together and dumped by Corporations, municipalities and local bodies.

    3)This again is cause for spread of various diseases. There is a shortage of land available for land fills in urbanized states like Tamilnadu and ground water and land fertility are affected. The burning of waste in such dumping yards leads to lot of air pollution.

    4)Similar to indiscriminate use of polythene carry bags, indiscriminate dumping of all types of garbage without implementing source segregation is causing understandable and enormous harm to all sections of society. The brunt of all the ill effects is naturally felt by the marginalized communities especially women and children.

    5)Similar to sewerage workers, municipal workers involved in clearing of garbage from both domestic and industrial places are exposed to injuries, diseases and death due to an artificially created situation and due to short sighted policy of the Government.

    6)It is demeaning and uncivic to expose municipal workers who again are from economically and socially deprived communities and an assault on their dignity and self-esteem.

    7)It is common to find adults and children from marginalized communities scavenge dustbins and dumping yards for non-biodegradable materials like plastic and metal scrap to make a living.

    8)The petitioner has come across not only many poor school-dropout children but also poor school-going children roam around dumping yards after school hours to scavenge for any scrap which could fetch them some money.

    9)This again should be seen in the context of human rights and child rights where the indifference of the civil society and the Government is making poor children scavenge and eke out a living in an undignified way.

    10)The constant burning of wastes in dumping yards give rise to a variety of toxic fumes which affect the poor communities living in the vicinity of dumping yards.

    11)By implementing source segregation of garbage throughout the state, the Government can not only reduce pollution, save the environment for future generations but also prevent death, disease and disability of poor communities especially children.

    12)By implementing source segregation, Government can protect the environment for future generations, restore dignity to municipal workers and also provide employment opportunities for scores of marginalized and poor sections of the society through recycling of non-biodegradable waste and converting biodegradable waste into manure.

    It is submitted that the above two vital issues should not be viewed merely as Government’s policy and an issue of good governance but importantly as an issue of Human / children’s rights.

    It is submitted that as per objectives of Human rights commission, it is well within its mandate to bring this serious and continuing violation to the Notice of the Government and if required to the attention of National Human Rights Commission,New Delhi and Honourable High court so that the State is forced to take some positive action.

    It is humbly submitted that the the Honourable Chairman of State Human Rights Commission may consider this submission as an affidavit and may be pleased act upon the same to prevent the serious human rights violation on account of both the above issues.

    It is submitted that the petitioner shall be willing to appear in person to provide any input or evidence if sought by the Commission.

    Sincerely yours



    Managing Trustee.
    teaminforse AT yahoo DOT com


  3. Wonder if it does any good, as we have done in Kerala, to prettify waste collection renaming it ‘Clean Kerala Mission’? The women of the State’s much-lauded women’s self-help group network, the Kudumbasree, have been drafted to do this and there is a lot of publicity given to their ‘earnings’. The largest monthly income these women earn is about 5000 rupees; no one has systematically studied their workloads. In Kannur, where a researcher did study waste collection by Kudumbasree members, it appeared that caste prejudices were being given a new lease of life in the name of hygiene. The Municipality has produced sanitation manuals for these workers and some of the instructutions, she told us, are utterly appaling — ‘do not talk with or touch women and children when going to houses to collect waste’; ‘don’t step inside the gate’. These women had no facilities in the municipality office premises — the organised sanitation workers of the Municipality, who regard them with extreme hostility, refuse to share theie facilities. They apparently told the researcher that these women were ‘unclean’, and couldn’t be allowed to leave even their soap in the bathrooms in the municipal office premises. The women told her that their working day started at 4 at dawn and ended by 4 at noon — full 12 hours, and on getting back they needed to bathe in hot water to feel better. The municipality is supposed to provide them with gloves, but the gloves wear out very soon and replacement is not easy. They manage by collecting the rejected printed gloves from the press of a prominent Malayalam newspaper!

    And it is a fact that there are not many savarnas in these groups at least from what I know of the Trivandrum groups.


  4. • 12-year old Laxmi* was lured by her classmates to travel to Kolkata (capital of West Bengal, a state in India) for a picnic and later sold in the train.

    • 10-year old Sneha* accompanied her 16 year-old sister Surya* to the dream city Mumbai in search of a job. Surya works as a domestic help while Sneha is hired for zari / embroidery work.

    • Ramesh*, a 15-year old rag-picker is missing. His neighbours say they saw him being chatting with a drug-addict.
    * names changed to protect identity

    Young children go missing from the small towns and villages in India. Some run-away on being lured by the dreams of the big city, while others are carried away to be sold for meager gains…

    The birth of a child (read male) in India meant celebration. Sweets are distributed and the atmosphere is one of merriment.Neighbours and relatives greet the parents and the new born baby is showered with blessings and gifts. Children are considered as God’s gift to the family. While this is true and relevant in many parts of India and the world at large, a stark reality hits us when we read the newspapers and are informed about the alarming rate at which children go missing from their homes and the increasing number of child labourers found in every sector of employment.

    A child is one of the worst marginalized sections in the societal spectrum. Children are found in most realms of institutions, and more so in places they are not supposed to be. Child soldiers, child sex workers, child labourers, bonded labourers, child brides, rag pickers, beggars, manual scavengers, domestic workers, camel jockeys in dangerous races etc.

    The above is an extract from Aileen S. Marques essay “Innocence Interred!!!”. This essay was ranked among the top three essays in Human Rights Defence’s Essay competition 2008. If you would like to read more, visit:

    Yours sincerely,

    Dr Tomas Eric Nordlander


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