A civilisation plodding through scum

Mahatma Gandhi had described American historian Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India, as a ‘report of a drain inspector’. But as much as I admire the Mahatma, I cannot help wondering about what the state of this country would be without drain inspectors.

As it is, I doubt we have enough of them. Take a look at the recent hoopla over political remarks about toilets in this country. As we all know, we have a serious shortage of toilets and most of the population have to relieve themselves wherever they can. It has taken us 66 years to get an act banning manual scavenging passed.

Dubious self-praise: Some states want to thump their chests and tell us that they don’t have as many malnutrition cases as before. After 66 years, it’s hard to be impressed

You would have thought that building toilets and freeing people from the job of manually collecting other people’s bodily detritus would have been the first thing we did. Of course we all know that you would have thought wrong. As if we thought about this at all.

Malnutrition is another drain inspector sort of subject. The latest government tells us that it still very much exists in India’s children — about half are malnourished. These numbers only make us angry and not because children are starving but because some states have done better than others. So although every state has children dying or wasted, some states want to thump their chests and tell us that they don’t have quite so many as a few years before. After 66 years, again, it’s hard to be impressed.

How about an urban drain inspector’s view? Delhi has been a tiny bit shaken by a case where a senior executive in a multinational company has been arrested for ill-treating her domestic help, now 15. The girl came to work with her one year ago from a placement agency.

She was beaten, made to drink her own urine as punishment, locked up in the bathroom, had her nails pulled out, was bitten by dogs, slashed with knives... She was not allowed to meet her family after she started working. The neighbours heard her screaming but few did anything.

Someone, though, informed an NGO, which is how the girl was rescued. How many people living around you hire children to work for them? More than you want to think about? Do you think they are all loved and treated like family members? Like the nannies you see standing around restaurants looking after a badly behaved toddler while the parents and their friends have a fancy meal?

We seem to live in a see-saw world between perfection bestowed on us by 5,000 years of civilisation and the scum seen by a drain inspector.

Till a few years ago, we could not even acknowledge that Indian society was capable of producing perverts, sadists, psychopaths and sociopaths. These were all western imports polluting our pristine surroundings.

It was thus that with absurd impunity, leaders of khap panchayats in Haryana could blame the consumption of chow mein for the increase in rapes or ban women from carrying cell phones in Uttar Pradesh to protect them from the advances of men. In ourselves, we are apparently too pure to ever cross any forbidden or difficult lines unless lured into it by foreign influences.

For some people, if you dump the rose-coloured lenses of past glory you were clearly unpatriotic. But the recent past has forced us to wake up, if only a little bit. We have manual scavengers. We have millions of malnourished children and we have malevolence all around us in our everyday lives. Every now and then, you meet someone who wants to know why newspapers don’t carry enough good news. But I wonder.

I think we need to have many more drain inspectors, more horror stories put out there and more awareness of all the torture that happens behind closed doors.

There is some confusion over whether ostriches really bury their heads in the sand. But there is no doubt that humans do it. And for some of us in India, it’s a compulsive habit. May the tribe of the drain inspector increase. That way, we may even get enough drains.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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