Sunday, May 21, 2006 (Mumbai):
In urban India, which is driving the anti-reservation protests, the move is to break down old caste prejudices.
But even today, in India's biggest cities, the men and women who enter the sewers to clean the city's filth are dalits.
Many are tied to their jobs because they are government ones, but their caste and their profession continue to make them victims of prejudice.
According to Ramesh, a sewage worker, his profession is a descent into hell. "It's very hot and suffocating inside," he said.
He's part of the Mumbai Municipality's sewage department, but he says his father had it much worse.
His father was a manual scavenger from a dalit community, who had no money and was shunned by society.
The methods used to clean sewers and garbage may have changed somewhat but the people who are given this job remain the same.
They are all from the lower rung of the caste system just as it's been for hundreds of years. But now it comes with a modern official stamp of being a 'government employee'.
"In Mumbai, the traditional sweeper community came into the BMC so today they are all scheduled caste. And the policy for the sweeper community is that after retirement, the job is given to his son," said Johnny Joseph, Municipal Commissioner, Mumbai.
Though today, many of the workers are well educated and better paid. They remain chained to their caste profession because as a municipality sewage worker you get a room, which is a rarity in Bombay.
"Last year my father died, so I took over his job," said a sewage worker. "I used to work in a travel agency but I had to leave that and become a sweeper because the BMC job gives you a room," he added.
The rooms that they are entitled to are often in old decrepit buildings, filthy from the outside and cramped from the inside. This leads to its own form of ghettoisation.
"We don't have ownership. The rooms come with the job so we stick to it or else we would have given it up long time ago," said a sewage woman.
Being tied to their old profession means also facing old forms of prejudice.
"In our eyes everyone is equal but others do not see us as their equal. They see us as a scheduled caste, as an unclean person. When people see a municipal worker on the road they are usually rude to him. They don't realize that it is because of him that Mumbai is clean," said a sewage worker.
This is the treatment meted out to most of the sewage workers. People are not only rude to them but they are also not given any respect.