“Relli aavida, bathroomlu kaduguthundi attu pakka vellamaku.”
(A Relli woman is cleaning the toilet, avoid going anywhere near it.)
Relli people, across Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, often hear people give each other this warning while they go about their work. Although they are primarily a grass cutting community, the Relli community has been equally actively engaged in sweeping and manual scavenging as a means to earn a livelihood.
Dalit communities across India face structural and occupational discrimination even today. The Relli community is one of many such marginalised communities who still have to face the plight of the stubborn caste system.
Deaths of manual scavengers, occupational hazards and the discrimination faced by these communities are often reduced to numbers, statistics and chaotic TV debates, erasing the people and their stories.
Captives of a barbaric culture
“I have worked as a sewage and toilet cleaner for 23 years now. When I started as a scavenger, I cleaned dry toilets and carried human faeces on my head to dispose them off. Thankfully, because of technology, I do not have to carry it anymore, but that does not take away from the fact that I have to clean toilets and drains to earn a living.
I am disgusted by the work I do, but this is the best I can do to feed myself and my family.
This is what my ancestors did, this is what I was expected to do. I did not wish this for my children, but they had no option than to take up the job, just as I did 23 years ago.”
Untouchables in a “progressive” world
Several Dalit communities have been engaged in these humiliating occupations for centuries in India. Relli people live in isolation, away from the other communities. Certain streets are assigned to them, which limits their interactions with the other communities they live around. They speak in the Relli language with each other, and in Telugu to those outside the community.
This picture was taken in a street of a Relli colony, where, by default, people work as sweepers. They clean sewers, septic tanks and toilets.
Under the weight of oppression
Children here drop out of school around the age of 10-12, to work. While there are a few children who finish their schooling, they rarely ever make it to college. This happens primarily due to financial problems and the high levels of discrimination that they face at any educational institution.
These boys pose spoke about the discrimination they faced at school before they dropped out. Unsurprisingly, it has caused them and other younger children stress and trauma.
A social hierarchy unchanged by religion
Like several Dalit communities, the Relli community has a sizable number of people who have denounced Hinduism and converted to Christianity. But neither has this changed their status in society, nor has it given them equal rights or privileges.
The man pictured here narrates his experience of conversion to Christianity, of how he awaits a life of dignity in the afterlife, since it seems like a faraway future.
“As a young boy, I was never allowed to enter temples. The priest would shoo me away if he happened to spot me anywhere near the temple. He would then sprinkle turmeric water around the temple, to purify the area. I vividly remember how my family had converted into Christianity. I clearly remember the feeling when I was sitting inside the church with other people, I remember how happy I was. And while conversion gave me the privilege to enter a place of worship, it still hasn’t erased the association I see people making between me with filth. That continues to stay with you, wherever you go — no matter what.”
A life unbothered by disgust
“I clean drains, take out the sewer waste and go back home without enough money. Have you ever smelled a cracked septic pipe? I smell like that every day.
It is difficult to live if we take the feeling of disgust seriously. I have been in this profession for more than 30 years, and there hasn’t been a single day I don’t get nauseous.
I drink, to make it seem less disgusting. It helps me deal with the nausea that comes with the sewers. They say we have rights and say we could opt for other professions, but would they employee me as anything else? It has been three decades now, and it seems like I know nothing better than doing this job. It’s fate; everyone must be dealing with their own, but honestly, ours seems worse.”
Most Relli people work under a contractor commissioned by the government, which makes their jobs and incomes very unstable. For all the risks they take to clean the cities and towns, the returns on their work are far from proportionate. Instead, they often grapple with several illnesses that occur as a result of the nature of their work.
The community has been protesting since the past month for permanent jobs and the removal of contract-based work. They are also demanding a hike in their salaries and requesting the government of Andhra Pradesh for a stable income. Though there are some colonies where Relli people live, there are still several of them who do not have permanent shelter, so proper housing is also one of their demands.
This picture was taken when the community was protesting and boycotted their daily work. There were several demands made to the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, N Chandrababu Naidu, regarding education, housing and a hike in salaries for the Relli people.
A resistant protest
The Relli community has been exploited and marginalised for ages by the society, and no government has made an attempt to hear and find solutions to their pleas. Politicians visit their colonies in large numbers diligently once every four years t ask for votes, which have amounted to nothing, they say. Consequently, the Relli community have now chosen to boycott work, and protest till their demands are met.
“Let these politicians step in our colony without addressing our demands and making a safe space for our children in schools, we will make sure that our vote goes to waste and does not support any government that refuses to take action.”