Jan Sahas:Meet The Man Who Has Gifted New Life To Over 31 Thousand Manual Scavengers

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Even in this age of rapid urbanisation and technological advancement, the heinous practice of manual scavenging exists in extensive parts of rural India. What is worse is that the people associated with this shockingly degrading profession are treated as social outcasts and are often denied their fundamental human rights. Though the Manual Scavenging Act of 2013 has abolished this derogatory practice by law, many Dalit women are still subjected to carry out manual scavenging. “It is a matter of national shame as long as even one manual scavenger exists in India”, says Mr Ashif Shaikh, founder of the Jan Sahas Organisation, who has been working tirelessly for over 16 years towards liberating the manual scavengers and other bonded labourers.

Jan Sahas
Rescued bonded labourers

So far, his organisation has successfully rehabilitated around 31 thousand manual scavengers and bonded labourers and protected them from socio-economic discrimination. Having worked in 200 districts across 18 Indian states, Jan Sahas has also brought the victims into the mainstream of the society – ensuring their financial independence as well.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Jan Sahas, how it all began

Mr Ashif Shaikh believes that being born in a Dalit Muslim family; he faced marginalisation in every step of life. This nourished his determination to fight caste-based atrocities. As a student, he started the Sahasi Ekta Group to encourage the involvement of the student community in social development and societal problem-solving. This later paved the way for the foundation of Jan Sahas in 2000.

Achieving the first milestone

In 2001, Mr Shaikh initiated the “National Campaign for Dignity Program to end forced labour” –  based on a conducted study to identify various forms of untouchability and discrimination towards the Dalit community. During the survey, he found that the women engaged in manual scavenging practice were directly exposed to human excreta and sewage. Tolerating an extremely unpleasant stench, they collected the waste by their bare hands and carried it in cane baskets to the dump yards. In the scorching summer heat or pouring rains, the waste leaked on their faces and bodies. The work itself was inhuman; moreover, the women endured discrimination and violence as well.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

Their families are supposed to be engaged in this work generation after generation. They are prohibited from entering local temples, shops and all other public places. The children are treated as untouchables and do not have access to basic education. “The manual scavengers are untouchables within the untouchables”, Mr Shaikh adds, “Caste is not a practice, but a mindset. The Dalit people, who are mistreated by the upper castes, are meting out a similar treatment towards the manual scavengers.”

Jan Sahas
Village gatherings held by liberated victims

Jan Sahas initiated their work from Bhaurasa in Madhya Pradesh, where in one year they convinced 26 women to give up manual scavenging. The children played a huge role by narrating their experiences of harassment and convincing their mothers against it.

“The women burned their baskets as a symbol to boycott the ill practice”, recalls Mr Shaikh.

The NCDP campaign: following Babasaheb Ambedkar’s footsteps

The core strategy of Jan Sahas has been community empowerment, as devised once by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the pioneer in the fight against caste and casteism. The first group of liberated women were trained to be community leaders who travelled to adjacent villages creating awareness among other forced labourers. They were treated as role models by the next group of villagers. Today, the group has grown into an active organisation that is doing remarkable work towards abolishing social discrimination and gender disparity.

Their working methods are unique. For example, when a group of volunteers comprising liberated victims reach a village, they invite every villager for a gathering. Sharing snacks and listening to the caste-challenging ideas, the community is made to realise their plight in bondage. They can free themselves from this inhuman norm only when they understand that they are victims of social evil.

In 2013, Jan Sahas embarked on a cross-country march covering 230 districts, led by former manual scavengers. They mobilised other non-profit entities to follow a similar model to bring an end to the menace of manual scavenging.

Another milestone of success came through the “barefoot paralegals”. About 65% of the former victims emerging from the very bottom have been meticulously trained to become advocates who communicate with the other victims and represent them to ensure justice. As a matter of fact, due to efforts of the “barefoot paralegals”, the rate of conviction in sexual crimes against Dalit women have risen from 2% to 38% within a few years.

Jan Sahas
Providing alternate employment opportunities

Jan Sahas also ties up with Government schemes or private sector organisations to teach the children, to train the victims in skill development programs and also educate them about their rights and privileges. The Dalits today are a subject of political agenda by different parties, especially due to the controversy on the reservation system. Mr Shaikh ensures that his movement strictly focuses on their socio-economic well-being and does not get entangled in the political power struggle.

The challenges they overcame

Mr Shaikh reported the major challenges they had to deal with. First was the gender discrimination within the lower caste community. Women were mostly forced to engage in the manual scavenging work, and they also had to face sexual violence. Jan Sahas has successfully rehabilitated many survivors of rape and gender-based violence.

Another hurdle was the denial by the State or Central Government regarding the existence of manual scavengers – which sometimes delayed their campaigns.

Mr Ashif Shaikh’s message

“We need to clarify our basic understanding of equality”, Mr Ashif Shaikh insists. He feels that the rest of the society ignores the problem of caste discrimination considering that this issue concerns only the Dalit community. “Everybody needs to value the fundamental rights to equality as depicted in the Indian Constitution”, he adds. When the entire society joins hand in hand and takes up a firm stance against such practices, only then we can dream of a better India.

For more information on the Jan Sahas organisation and their development programmes, visit their website: http://jansahasindia.org.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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