India's Scavengers Seek Recognition As Sanitation Workers

As India votes in national elections, manual scavengers are trying to overcome caste stigma and prejudice.

An Indian manual scavenger cleans a manhole in New Delhi in August 2018
An Indian manual scavenger cleans a manhole in New Delhi in August 2018
Shruti Jain

KARAULI — A few months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela, describing it as an "act of worship". While addressing a recent election rally in Rajasthan's Hindaun, though, he didn't utter a word about the plight of manual scavengers in the district. Instead, he spoke at length about how the country is safe under the current Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) regime.

This has come as a rude shock to manual scavengers who have been fighting a case for their recruitment as government sanitation workers for the past six years. Manual scavengers of the Harijan basti area in Rajasthan's Karauli were denied posts as sanitation workers in 2012 despite the Rajasthan municipality sanitation employee rules clearly stating that manual scavengers are to be prioritized.

When the 2012 order prioritizing them for the posts was announced, women like Rekha were convinced that their miseries would soon come to an end. As they were eligible for the posts, they didn't have the slightest inkling that they could be rejected – even after being shortlisted for interviews.

To fight for their right, six women manual scavengers – Rekha, Maya, Mamta, Suman, Meena and Mamkta Mehtar – filed a writ petition in the Rajasthan High Court in 2013, stating that the Karauli municipality adopted a "pick and choose" policy while recruiting sanitation workers.

Rekha, Maya, Mamta, Suman, Meena and Mamkta Mehtar, the women who filed a petition — Photo: Shruti Jain/The Wire

In their petition, the manual scavengers have alleged that several ineligible persons had been appointed whereas the petitioners, who were fully eligible and had fulfilled the requisite conditions, were not considered.

The petitioners submitted their applications along with all the required documents and fees within the prescribed time in the municipality office. Based on their eligibility, the authorities had issued call letters directing them to appear for an interview between June 10 and June 20, 2013.

"The interview went well and we were quite hopeful to get through, but our names didn't appear in the list of the selected candidates. We went straight to the authorities to check about it but they haven't responded," Rekha Devi, one of the petitioners, told The Wire.

As they wait for the court to rule on their petition, these women are still working as manual scavengers to earn a livelihood.

Dang Vikas Sansthan, a registered society that works for the rehabilitation of the community, identified 18 manual scavengers in Karauli as a part of its survey, which was duly verified by the concerned authority. The society has claimed that only two out of these 18 were appointed.

"The government had appointed us to conduct a survey and notify manual scavengers in the district. As part of their rehabilitation, we conducted their training and provided them monthly remuneration too. All this was under the government's supervision, but still 16 notified manual scavengers haven't been inducted as sanitation workers," Rajesh Sharma, associated with the Sansthan, told The Wire.

The total number of candidates selected has also been raised as an issue. The Karauli municipality recruited 53 candidates, while its advertisement in a local daily had notified only 32 posts for sanitation workers. The petitioners have claimed that no clarification on the advertisement or any official circular was issued to increase the post count from 32 to 53.

A First Information Report (FIR) was filed in 2013 against the then commissioner of the Karauli municipality, Rakesh Kumar Garg, under Sections 13(1)(d) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 120(b) (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code for accepting bribes from candidates.

Speaking to The Wire, commissioner at the Karauli municipality Deepak Chauhan said, "It's an old issue and I've been posted here very recently. As far as I know, the matter is pending in the high court of Rajasthan and we can now act only as per the court's orders."

There have been numerous instances in recent times where ‘upper"-caste people have applied for jobs as government sanitation workers. That was why the Rajasthan government had made it compulsory to prioritize manual scavengers in the recruitment, but authorities turned a blind eye to these guidelines.

To fight caste stigma and prejudices, manual scavengers in India have issued their own manifesto for the first time this election.

To fight caste stigma and prejudices, manual scavengers in India have issued their own manifesto for the first time this election. Their demands include rehabilitation, education, health, safety, pension and the right to live with dignity.

They have also demanded that all sanitation workers and their dependents be issued a Right to Life – 21 card that ensures free access to education, healthcare and dignified livelihoods. A pension of Rs 6,000 ($85) per month to all sanitation workers above 55 years of age has also been put forth as a demand.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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