Sanitation Workers, Minority Rights And The Weight Of History

Sanitation Workers, Minority Rights And The Weight Of History
Yasir Masih is a 30-year-old man working in a large-scale organisation in Pakistan as a sanitary worker. He has been hired by a third-party contractor, thus he has no pay structure and proper facilities, as are given to other employees of the organisation. He, along with his fellow workers, is often disgraced by calling them “Churas.” They are somehow treated as outcaste and untouchable.

As per Wateraid statistics, 80% of sanitation workers in Pakistan are Christians. Most of these workers, like Yasir, go through the suffering of being outcasts and untouchables. Though the Christian community has played a vital role in a number of different fields like education, health, defence etc however the public discussion is often limited to tagging the community with sanitation work.

John O’Brien in his books The Construction of Pakistani Christian Identity and The Unconquered People offers the analysis that the control of Aryans over India pushed the natives to the lowest of the society and tagged them with ‘low-level’ work, particularly the cleaning work of the cities/towns. Most of them were called Churas in the Indian Population Census (1868-1931). During the British Raj, missionary work could not succeed in the higher castes, thus they approached the lower castes and a mass conversion took place in the 1900s. Though they converted to Christianity, the tag of ‘low’ jobs due to their caste remained the same. Most of the converts remained attached to sanitary work.

Rev. Shamoun Nasir in his book Nazria Pakistan aur Aqleeyaten discusses that in rural Punjab the majority of Christians were doing manual jobs in fields belonging to Sikh cultivators. However, after the 1947 Partition, claims of property transferred to immigrants, they relegated the Christians to the status of outcasts and restricted them to the work of cleaning. He refers to a speech of S.P. Singha in the Punjab assembly in this regard.

As mass conversion took place among low caste tribes, even the British missionaries themselves maintained a distance from them.

Ismat Chugtai, a famous writer, in her autobiography Kagahzi Hai Pairahan (translated: The Paper Attire) shares her observations made during her education at the Mission College in Lucknow. She observed that in her college hostel there were three buildings, and local Christian girls stayed in the lowest category. Local Christians were also engaged in manual jobs like gate-keepers, gardners etc. Many Christians remained under patronage of the missionary institutions. This brings about the culture of isolation in the form of a community at the Mission compound. The education mostly provided to them was related to religious subjects rather than science. The services of local Christians were limited to subordination rather the leadership.

Qurrattulain Hyder in her novel Akhir e Shab ke Humsafar depicts the class system among missionaries and local Christians. The framework was colonial rather than emancipatory in any way.

The strategy of establishing Christian villages, at some level, boosted up the local poor Christians. However, on the other hand, it provided an environment of ghettoisation. This brought a social gap between the majority and the minority. Later, some people migrated to cities and due to a lack of skills, adopted the work of cleaning. For some people, there was an economic reason attached, as there was job security and pension involved in the work doing sanitation work in municipal corporations.

This analysis helps to understand that the hatred against this minority has twofold origns: religious and social. The Churas were natives, yet when they were marginalised and became outcasts, they were at the lowest of the society. Later, as they adopted the foreign religion, they became further alienated from the reality and existence of the society. Thus, after conversion, their status remained the same in the power culture of the society. Due to their low caste, even though some individuals among them achieved higher positions in society, the overall attitude remained the same. There are some important parallels with the situation of the Dalit community in India.

In this context, the role of government, society and the Christian community is vital to ensure respect towards sanitary workers. The government is obliged to provide its citizens with the facility of sanitation and water under SGD-6. As per the Environmental Performance Index 2022, Pakistan is ranked 144 out of 179 in the category of Sanitation and Drinking Water. To improve in the field of sanitation, the presence of sanitary workers is, of course, important. But the provision of better facilities and life options for sanitation workers is necessary: for the sake of both their human development and the improvement of the sanitation situation itself.

Today, however, they are badly neglected – especially after the establishment of waste management companies in big cities. Sanitary workers are not paid on time, many times they are forced to strike before Christians or Easter for timely payment of salaries and pensions. Secondly, there are no proper safety kits for them, due to which the workers die especially during their work at manholes. In a multinational or big organisation, sanitary workers are hired by third-party contractors who exploit them. The government should provide better facilities for sanitary workers and create awareness regarding their respect as human beings.

A transformation in social attitudes towards sanitary workers is important too: we need a curriculum that highlights the respect for human beings despite any profession. The profession of sanitation should not be seen as a lowly, outcast or untouchable one – but as a profession just like others. Cleaning and sanitary work itself needs to be shared by all segments of society, not just the historically marginalised communities to whom it has so far been assigned.

The Christian community needs help, so that it can offer people the possibility of escaping a generational affiliation with sanitation work, and access education, skills or business opportunities.