A couple of weeks ago, I watched a documentary called Kakkoos. I had watched a trailer before and wanted to watch the full film, so when I found out that it was released on YouTube, I decided to watch. I remembered, from the trailer, that the documentary was about manual scavenging and that it seemed interesting but not much else.
When I started watching it though, I was shocked; some of the scenes were stomach-churning and sometimes so bad that I could not watch.
Let that sink in for a moment: I couldn’t watch scenes from a documentary where my fellow citizens clean shit (oops, human excreta) as part of their daily job.
Here’s the government’s definition of a “manual scavenger” (emphasis mine):
“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.
The definition is descriptive but does not capture how horrible the task is and the term “manual scavenging” itself seems so sterile. Scavenging is not a word that you feel repulsed by, so manual scavenging seems benign. Maybe that’s why the bureaucrats chose the term; it doesn’t evoke disgust.
But, the documentary, which is shot in multiple locations in Tamil Nadu and has interviews with numerous folks engaged in this inhumane and soul-crushing work, does. It is a searing film because it exposes the reality of this work and the manner in which people are exploited and suppressed.
I can easily recall the faces of the people in the documentary and remember the despair, anger, and resignation in their voice; their stories are haunting and will jolt you. The genius of this documentary is that it makes you uncomfortable when you watch and disturbs you when you think about this later.
So, why even watch? Because if you live in your bubble and think that your country has “made it” because it’s going digital or because marketing slogans (Swachh Bharat) make you feel proud, this documentary will show the depths to which our fellow citizens have to go simply to survive.
It should shame us that even though there are machines to do this kind of work, we still have no problems with asking people risking their lives (yes, there have been deaths in sewers) and their health to keep our surroundings clean.
This is exploitation and it is oppression and we are complicit because of our silence and because we don’t want to know. So, make the time and watch Kakkoos ; I guarantee that you’ll be disgusted, horrified, and moved. And, it’ll be something concrete that people face daily and not an abstract term like “manual scavenging”. You owe it to the folks who do this every day to, at least, watch.