A video by Tata Trusts intended to encourage people to segregate wet and dry waste at the household has been the subject of controversy, but not noticed so far in the news media. It shows a schoolboy, about 10 years old, making a speech in his classroom in Hindi, claiming his father runs the country. He adds that his father is not a politician or a policeman, but a cleaner of sewers.
The boy explains that his father dives into the sewer to clean up, since people are so lax at segregation waste at source. The boy urges his classmates to save his father. There are images of a bearded man plunging into a gutter, and emerging from the dark brown slush of the city’s fecal sludge. Activists who have long worked for a ban on manual scavenging say this video works towards undoing their efforts.
Tanishq, the Tata Group’s jewelry arm, was recently in the eye of a storm. On Tuesday, it announced that it would withdraw a video advertisement celebrating togetherness as a Muslim household conducts rituals to welcome an unborn child into the family, making a pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law feel at home. While many appreciated the feeling of togetherness across religious divides that the advertisement conveyed, Hindutva groups went into the protest mode, claiming the video promoted ‘love jihad’.
“We are deeply saddened with the inadvertent stirring of emotions and withdraw this film,” a statement from Tanishq said. Protesters, however, have not calmed down yet. Even on October 16, 2020, three Tanishq stores in Madhya Pradesh were forced to put up public notices of apology.
The film on the son of a manual scavenger, however, has gone relatively unnoticed. Legal notice was served last month to Tata Trusts, its chairman Ratan Tata and media firm Newj.com.
Advocate Dr B Karthik Navayan, on instructions from Chennai resident Professor Shiva Shankar, sought removal of the offensive video from Facebook and other social media platforms. In March this year, a notice had been served in this matter by the same advocate – at that time, his clients were Dalit Camera website founder B Ravichandran and Dr KB Obulesha, member of a monitoring committee formed by the social welfare department of the Government of Karnataka under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, 2013 and Charles Meesa of the National Dalit Alliance.
Although the video appeared to have been removed at that time, it is still found on the Facebook page of Newj. The latest notice explains: “It is atrocious that the schoolchild was made to feel so proud about the pathetic and sub-human condition of his father.”
“This deliberate propaganda is regressive to the idea of prohibition of manual scavenging aimed at by the law. This video in fact reinforces the caste-forced slavery of manual scavenging of former untouchable communities and present scheduled caste communities,” the notice says, underlining that no one opts voluntarily to plunge into a drain and clean it of fecal sludge. Scavenging families do not wish to continue the occupation.
The notice seeks payment of damages of Rs 1 crore to the boy who acted in the video, and Rs 1 crore each to Dalit Camera, the monitoring committee of the Government of Karnataka and the National Dalit Alliance, which has been campaigning for an end to manual scavenging. Failure to remove the video and pay damages to the organisations that have been campaigning so far against manual scavenging could attract appropriate civil and criminal proceedings, the notice warns.
Dr Navayan, the lawyer who served the notice, said, “What Tata Trusts and Newj.com are promoting is illegal – promotion of manual scavenging is a crime. Why do people think this is all right? Such ideas get strength from MK Gandhi, who advocated caste-based occupations for untouchable castes.” Dr Navayan quotes from Harijan, in which Gandhi wrote on March 6, 1937: “One born a scavenger must earn his livelihood by being a scavenger and then do whatever else he likes. For a scavenger is worthy of his hire as is a lawyer; or your president. That, according to me, is Hinduism.” Gandhi had equated Varna Dharma to the law of gravitation, arguing that human effort could not cancel it.
A new book on Gandhi by journalist Bharat Dogra, Man Over Machine: A Path Towards Peace offers an explanation: “No one who has reached out to so many people with continuity for so many years could be expected to always say the right thing and make exactly the right choice…no one can be one hundred percent free from the prejudices of his times.”
An email was sent to Tata Trusts seeking a response on the notice, but it went unanswered. A woman calling on behalf of the agency to which Tata Trusts has outsourced public relations work explained to this reporter that the offending video had been removed from all sites of the Tata Trusts, but admitted that it continues to circulate elsewhere. She said she was not the official spokesperson, so an email would be sent on behalf of Tata Trusts. No email response has yet been received.
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