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)