Excerpts from Rose George’s new book, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, in Slate:
It drips on her head most days, says Champaben, but in the monsoon season it’s worse. In rain, worms multiply. Every day, nonetheless, she gets up and walks to her owners’ house, and there she picks up their excrement with her bare hands or a piece of tin, scrapes it into a basket, puts the basket on her head or shoulders and carries it to the nearest waste dump. She has no mask, no gloves, and no protection. She is paid a pittance, if she is paid at all. She regularly gets dysentery, giardiasis, brain fever. She does this because a 3,000-year-old social hierarchy says she has to.
They used to be known as bhangi, a word formed from the Sanskrit for “broken,” and the Hindi for “trash.” Today, official India calls them the “scheduled castes,” but activists prefer Dalits, a word that means “broken” or “oppressed” but with none of the negativity of bhangi. Most modern Indians don’t stick to their caste jobs any more. There is more inter-caste marriage, more fluidity, more freedom than ever before. But the outcastes are usually still outcastes, because they are still the ones who tan India’s animals, burn its dead, and remove its excrement. Champaben is considered untouchable by other untouchables—even the tanners of animals and the burners of corpses—because she is a safai karamchari.