A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper: a snapshot of discrimination against Dalit people in India

Amudhan R P, “A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper” (2003)

Known as “manual scavenging”, manually cleaning public and private toilets, open drains and streets of human excrement is still being done by thousands of men and women across India. Much of this work is traditionally done by people from the Dalit (untouchable) communities that are at the bottom of the caste social system. Dalit women sweep and clean dry waste in streets, collect it in cane or metal vessels, and carry these vessels on their heads to dispose of the shit at central disposal points in their communities. Men and women clean faeces from public and private toilets, gutters and drains, and men usually clean sewers and septic tanks.

This video, scripted and filmed by Amudhan R P, follows Mariyammal, a sanitary worker with the Madurai Municipal Corporation as she cleans a street near a temple in Madurai. Mariyammal describes her daily routine to Amudhan as she goes about her work – her employer does not give her proper protective clothing or equipment like a mask, gloves or appropriate footwear so she goes barefoot to avoid soiling her shoes – and vents her anger and frustration about the work she has to do, the lack of proper equipment she is given to do her job, and the discrimination she is forced to put up with from the people around her because she is a Dalit and a sanitary worker.

Featuring close-up shots, and with a jerky style due to Amudhan having to carry the camera on his shoulder, the film can be very confronting for viewers as they see the amount of back-breaking work Mariyammal must do every early morning: scattering ash or sanitary powder over piles of faeces, and sweeping the shit into her vessel with scoops she must obtain or buy herself. She makes three trips to a central disposal area in Madurai. She tells Amudhan that she herself is in bad health (in the opening credits, the film notes that sanitary workers are at risk for asthma, malaria and cancer from their work) but despite requesting a transfer to other work, her employer refuses to move her. She cannot give up working despite her meagre pay and demeaning job as she is a widow with a large family of boys (some of whom must work as labourers) and a huge debt with high interest to pay moneylenders after taking a loan to pay for a son’s wedding. Amudhan passes no judgement on how Mariyammal does her work or on her frustration but patiently asks questions and absorbs some of the anger she vents. Mariyammal turns out to be a feisty lady especially when she takes a break and orders morning tea for herself from a tea vendor. She is not afraid to boss local children for shitting in the street she has to clean and local people appear to tiptoe gingerly past her as she strolls through the streets like a queen.

Since the film was made, it has won awards at film festivals in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi and was even shown at a film festival in China. The street where Mariyammal worked was shut down and Mariyammal was shifted to different work. The working conditions of other Madurai sanitary workers have improved somewhat with better equipment given them as well. Providing the poor people of Madurai and elsewhere in India with better living and working conditions that might include better public sanitation infrastructure – when one sees the dreadful public toilets in Madurai, one understands why poor people prefer to poop in back lanes and alleys – and which turn the faeces into a useful asset such as fertiliser or fuel, seems to be beyond the scope of government at local, regional and national level though: the legislation to provide proper public and private sanitation, making manual scavenging unnecessary, may exist but enforcement is something else altogether.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.

Victim of the World Wildlife Fund: racial cleansing and genocide masquerading as nature conservation

Jos van Dongen, “Victim of the World Wildlife Fund” (Zembla, 2019)

Now this is the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism I like to see! In this report for Zembla, a Dutch programme produced by BNNVARA (part of the Dutch public broadcasting system) that makes documentaries, journalist Jos van Dongen travels to Assam in eastern India to investigate allegations that the World Wildlife Fund aids and abets the destruction of villages and agricultural communities surrounding Kaziranga National Park (hereafter KNP) so that their lands can be incorporated into the park to help preserve declining populations of the Indian rhinoceros. Van Dongen discovers that park rangers in KNP have been issued with military assault weapons and are trained to shoot to kill. He also finds that villagers have been wrongly accused of poaching animals and in many cases have been detained, tortured and killed by park rangers. Finally and most shockingly, van Dongen discovers that the WWF has been funding family planning programmes in villages around the park, and that in these programmes medical and non-medical staff have been sterilising men and women.

Probably most viewers will be shocked to discover that the World Wildlife Fund has always had a hidden political agenda aimed at racial cleansing of unwanted and mostly poor and marginalised groups of people, disguised as a concern for conserving nature. With a history of having been founded or represented by people with direct or indirect connections to Nazi Germany or its institutions – people such as Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld (who married into the Dutch royal family) in the Netherlands and Prince Phillip of the British royal family – the WWF was set on a path of following policies and programmes that pit the communities that have always lived with endangered animals and ecosystems (and who know best how to conserve those ecosystems and the endangered flora and fauna within them) against those very ecosystems, and which portray humans and nature as always being in perennial conflict. This mind-set leads to the forced removal (and as the documentary shows, sometimes the torture and murder) of communities and individuals who innocently stray into the parks and are accused of being poachers, by park rangers.

Incredibly the park rangers themselves receive near-paramilitary training and military assault weapons, and are taught torture methods – by whom, the documentary does not say – that are funded by the WWF. While understandably park rangers need to be able to protect themselves from poachers who may be working for criminal gangs, the solutions they are provided with (including a “shoot to kill” policy) may be targeting local communities more than they are actually targeting the poachers, the gangs who employ them and the end consumers (usually the wealthy in other countries) who regard possessing rhino horns or jewellery and other trinkets made from ivory as status symbols. Also, by arming the park rangers with military assault weapons and training them, the WWF may be worsening the poaching problem, as in Kaziranga National Park and elsewhere around the world park rangers themselves have been involved in poaching activities.

Through interviews, notably with Professor Bram Buscher (Professor and Chair at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University), the documentary makes very clear that the local communities next to national parks like Kaziranga National Park are the people who understand the ecosystems and the endangered species existing within them best; and that the issue is not overpopulation, to be solved by foisting family planning programmes onto these communities or secretly sterilising their members, but is instead the economic growth paradigm and the materialist / consumerist model that accompanies it. This ideology is used to justify land grabs made by governments and corporations working together. Viewers will probably not be surprised to learn that the WWF also works with corporations in promoting its ideology and agenda (in which the supposed rights of nature and animals always supersede human rights) and turning conservation, sustainability and nature into profit-making commodities.

This documentary certainly calls into question the current paradigm of setting aside land for national parks without consulting the communities who have long occupied the land and cared for it for centuries, before the arrival of Europeans, with their greed for land and its wealth, and the many ideological justifications they had for stealing that wealth. The paradigm of conservation championed by the WWF and its supporters – conserving nature for the benefit and enjoyment of a privileged elite – has long had a racist and genocidal underlay.