Sewer Divers of Mumbai, Dalits and Technology

Technology is rarely seen as liberating for Dalits, most discussions are around social distinctions, and of late, around reservations and violence against Dalits.

Mulk Raj Anand, in his novel ‘Untouchable’ written in 1935 had opined the use of technology- like the usage of water closets and a drainage system to do away with many of the jobs that Dalits do. 70 years on, the situation has not changed dramatically.

While people will discuss about the 100 dollar laptop, no one will talk about simple technologies that impact those doing the most unproductive, if not filthy jobs.

It was this post by KA Muston writing at Daily Kos that led me to this observation- looking at technology from the point of view of the Dalit is something that is matter of fact for an American, not so for those writing on Dalits in India, from whatever perspective.

Each year about one hundred Dalit men across India die from breathing methane or drowning in filthy water. (There are no figures collected on the Dalit women who empty the thousands of village cesspits.) Worse, there is no count of the workers who die from respiratory diseases, urinary tract, skin and eye infections, gastrointestinal ailments and lung cancer. Fewer than 14% of them live to the age of 50. What a backward people the Indian people are. George Bush is right. We have a moral responsibility to deliver these people out of ignorance and into the enlightened path of democracy.

When they first built the London sewer (in the 1860’s) large metal balls just a few millimeters narrower than the diameter of the sewers were periodically fed through the brick tubes, driven by water current and driving all blockages before them. These balls are still used to maintain the sewers in London and Paris. Why couldn’t the people of New Deli (sic) (now Mumbai) have come up with a similar system? The answer is that in India people have always been cheaper than technology.

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10 thoughts on “Sewer Divers of Mumbai, Dalits and Technology

  1. Technology in India still has Brahmanical connotations- the much touted information technology usage of computers does not involve anything more than typing- the modern equivalent of writing. No wonder the upper castes, long used to not working with their hands, have taken to it like fish to water.

    That is why technology in India will never mean anything for the Dalits, it has been wholly appropriated by the upper castes.

  2. Hari: I do think that you have a point, though you put it too strongly.

    Your comment reminds me of the accusation that some feminists have against science itself, that the way it is defined (and its very concepts) are patriarchal.

    >That is why technology in India will never mean anything for the Dalits, it has been wholly appropriated by the upper castes.

    I would add that adding technology as part of the Dalit discourse, and advocating the use of technology at the ground level is something that Dalit and other activists need to take up.

  3. That’s a travesty, just another example of how much little has changed since the founding of the modern state of India over 55 years ago. I myself just finished a blog series on Dalits in India, the first four parts where essays from the CPI (M) while the last two parts where by me. Part V was on the history of the Hindu religion and the fight against caste oppression while Part VI was on the modern day plight of Dalits and their fight for equality. Good post Bhupindher, helps one further understand the plight of Dalits.

  4. Hullo, I salute you for this post. This is a subject I have written about, the hiatus between the “resources”, like technology, innovation etc, and the lives and aspirations of Dalits, and generally the poor. You are right: India’s precious sovreignity counts for nothing if it entails the inhumanity habitually practiced here.



  5. I realize, Rama, that I have read some of your posts on the subject. Guess I was just a a little perturbed when I said that “no one” is writing about this.
    I am currently reading Anand’s ‘Untouchable’ and realize that while some of the things have changed in the past 70 years, at the same time, so little has changed.

    It still beats me why converting to Buddhism is more important than asking for simple, common sense technology.

  6. @Bhupinder,
    This is one of the things that rarely get spoken about.The whole notion of uncleanness makes it so easy for society to perpetuate a vicious cycle.They deal with unclean work hence they are unclean, they are unclean hence untouchable.The working conditions of sewer works.It does not even need hi-technology but a couple of cranes and trailers.But then the equipment replaces 25 workers who lose jobs.By investing on technology they would have to further invest on re-employment.Perhaps this is the reason no one wants to commit?

  7. Vidya: That’s probably true to an extent true and my objection is that it sounds fatalistic.
    I feel that technology still means “hi tech” and anything that is cost saving, not something that has an impact on the working classes and their health. On a related note, see this story.

  8. ‘I would add that adding technology as part of the Dalit discourse, and advocating the use of technology at the ground level is something that Dalit and other activists need to take up.’

    you said something similar in the post..but it sounded kind of neutral. but this comment clarifies things a little. any new technology…and improvements/innovations are usually unveiled by those/are for those who use/need the technology. they’re not made/built from the perspective of those who service/maintain it..usually. should the burden of ‘producing’ technology, in this particular instance, fall on those who service/maintain it? it’s a little like asking the dalits/low-castes to forget caste.

  9. If the upper castes were to be so benevolent, there would be no need for a Dalit movement. The Dalit or any other subaltern movement exists precisely because the change does not come from above, unless it is forced to.

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