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India hiding disparities, 'under-reporting' figures of workers in stigmatized jobs

By Sumeet Mhaskar*
The scale of workforce employed in stigmatized occupations is enormous and each of the industries holds significant positions in the economy. For instance, in India there are ‘more than 2,000 tanneries that produce more than two billion square feet of leather annually, making the nation one of the world’s largest exporters of processed leather’.
In terms of its spatial location, Tamil Nadu with an estimated 60 to 70 percent of leather production is a major centre for leather and leather goods in the country. The rest is carried out in Agra, Kanpur and Kolkata.
In terms of the size of workforce, nearly 2.5 million labourers work in the leather industry making it one of the most labour intensive industries in the country. As for the social composition, Dalits share in the total leather workforce is about 46 percent, indicating their significant overrepresentation in the industry.
The number of families in rural India involved in manual scavenging work is more than 180,000, noted the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census. In this occupational group, the workforce is predominantly that of various Dalit communities. The 2011 census too identified nearly 26,07,612 dry latrines where human excreta is removed by a person manually.
However, these figures are still underreported and subject to debate due to flaws in the survey highlighted by various civil society organizations. Several states in India have not even conducted mandatory surveys despite the fact that they obtain funds from the central government meant for the welfare of manual scavengers.
Labour organizer SA Azad who runs the People’s Right and Social Research Centre sought to gather information on manual scavenging through the Right to Information from municipal corporations, police stations and social justice departments across the country. Some of those who replied to Azad’s application informed that they have not conducted the survey. Others either provided extremely low figures or entirely denied the presence of manual scavenging.
The Indian Railways too has been in denial about the employment of manual scavengers due to which there is unavailability of exact figures. The Railways has a network 63,000 kilometres and about 13,000 trains runs on everyday basis which is used by nearly 13 million passengers. However, across the country, with the exception for a few trains, no modern technology toilets are used which then ‘requires the use of manual scavengers to clean the human excreta which is directly discharged on to the railway track’.
Following the Railways, there are sewers and septic tanks which have reported death of manual scavengers. An estimated figure published by the Asia Dalit Rights Forum suggests that there are about 770,338 manual scavengers across the country.
Following manual scavengers, the scrap trade and reprocessing industry is known for its annual turnover running into several hundred crore rupees. Rag pickers who run this economy are estimated between 1.5 million and 4 million. The huge disparity in the estimate is probably due to the fact that rag pickers are considered as ‘self-employed’.
The waste pickers walk up to 10-12 kilometres each day carrying about 40 kilos of load on their heads retrieving ‘paper, plastic, metal, glass, bones, bottles and rags from garbage bins and dumps’. The segregation and recycling of the waste done by rag pickers is in fact a function of the municipal corporations.
Rag pickers themselves are aware about their contribution in ‘reducing pollution, maintaining city cleanliness, and preventing the spread of diseases, even at a risk to themselves’. The view from rag pickers’ standpoint was succinctly articulated by one of the participants at a meeting in the following manner: ‘So much difference we make! They get a clean city without paying us a paisa. The gutters would be blocked with their damn plastic bottles without us. Then everyone would come running to the corporation to shout and complain’.
The employment of children in rag picking is a violation of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. However, in contrast to several occupations involving child labour, rag picking is seen as a form of self-employment whereby children work with their parents and not under any employer.
Last, the butchering industry refers to the slaughtering of cattle, buffalo and poultry meat. The 2016-17 figures of the overall meat production are provided in a report published by the Department of Animal Husbandry. The report informs us that the share of cattle meat is merely 5 percent, buffalo meat constitutes about 23 percent and poultry meat contributes 46 percent to the total meat production in the country.
It is the area of beef export that India stood first in 2014 but in the year 2016 it was similar to Brazil. The report by the Wall Street estimates beef exports from India constituted $4 billion business annually. The butchering of all meat has a stigma attached to it.
Since 2014, however, the ban on the sale and consumption of beef in several Indian states with militant Hindutva leanings has also made the butchering of buffaloes an illegal and therefore criminalized occupation. Such decisions by the state governments have adverse consequences for this business and the livelihood of those dependent on it in a significant way.
Muslim and Dalit communities who are dependent upon these occupations are also at the receiving end by the cow vigilantes, who have implicit protection from the state machinery. The cow vigilantes under the pretext of ‘cow protection’ have unleashed a series of violent attacks against Dalits and Muslims. At times, these attacks by the cow vigilantes have taken the form of mob lynching of Muslim individuals.
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*This is the first part in a three part series on the state of stigmatized occupations in India, excerpted from the paper “The State of Stigmatized Employment in India: Historical Injustices of Labouring”, published by Oxfam India in the book “Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India”. Click HERE to download

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