Harijans: The ‘others’ among us
The term 'Harijan' commonly refers to a wide range of low-caste Hindu groups. Generally, we associate the term with the group of people engaged in cleaning professions. Because of their caste identity, they were treated as untouchables in the past. Mahatma Gandhi struggled to make them accepted in society and named them Harijan (Children of God). In British colonial times, these poor low-caste groups were located in different parts of the subcontinent for cleaning, tea plantations, and forest cutting work.
In Bangladesh, an estimated 5.5 million Harijans reside throughout its regions. They are mostly employed under the city corporations or municipalities as 'sweepers' or cleaners. They live in separate settlements apart from the general residential areas. Their generationally borne occupational identity cuts them out from society. Excluded from the wider community they struggle with the basic necessities of life including residence, education, sanitation, and employment. They face discriminatory treatments in public places, work, and educational institutions.
In the Rajshahi city area, there are six settlements of Harijan people. The Hatem Kha settlement is the largest having a population of approximately 1,600. The 270 families live in a concentrated land of six acres. With small residential spaces, these families lead their lives in an unhealthy environment. The residents of the settlement alleged that though they are living there for generations, their accommodation hasn't been enlarged over time.
The road that has gone through the settlement is broken and full of potholes and easily gets waterlogged during rain.
The Hatem Kha Harijan community as a whole, is now facing an acute unemployment crisis. The residents of the settlement revealed that about 80% of the community is currently unemployed. They pointed fingers at corruption practices in the employment process as the reason. As per the government directive issued in 2012, eighty percent of cleaning staff in government agencies is to be recruited from Harijans. But government agencies are now recruiting the majority of cleaning staff from Bangalee Muslims and Hindus in political consideration and bribe exchange, they alleged. There are now fears among Harijans that they will lose their "traditional livelihood".
On top of the unemployment crisis, the recent price hike of daily goods has made life miserable for Harijans. They are struggling to meet the minimal daily necessities of life.
In the settlement, Harijan children rarely continue education to the point of higher studies. Although discrimination towards Harijan children in educational institutions has significantly lowered, the parents don't feel interested to let their children continue education due to a lack of awareness and the gloomy prospects of employment. The educated Harijans have reported that they had faced discriminatory treatment in employment sectors for their identity.
Some residents of the settlements said that often they have to do their occupational work in life-threatening situations like cleaning septic tanks or clearing clogged sewage lines. They aren't made aware of the risks involved in these works and are trained to carry out their work in these situations safely.
In addition to all these, there isn't any access to proper sanitary facilities in the settlement. Most households in the community don't have toilets at home and thus have to rely on public toilets. For a population of 1,600, there are only 3 units of public toilets each containing 12 toilets. Amongst the three units currently only one unit is functioning. The community pleaded to the authorities consistently to fix the toilets to any avail.
Sub-head Mandal of the Hatem Kha Harijan Palli Sri DabluHela said, "In this settlement, we are a community of 270 families. These families live in a congested environment in the limited land of the settlement. The city corporation authorities promised to set up apartment facilities for the Harijans but till now we haven't seen any progress in that regard. The educated youths of our community face discrimination while pursuing jobs for their identity. Also, our traditional occupation which is cleaning is now being stolen from us.
The proportion of recruits of cleaning staff from non-Harijans and Harijans is now 80 and 20 percent. Because of social stigma, we also can't initiate other initiatives like opening restaurants and businesses. People wouldn't eat from our hands or transact with us as we are considered untouchables. We went to the authorities with our problems again and again but haven't got any solution except vain promises."
"The problems we face are complex. We have been living here for centuries and always have been treated with utter neglect. No party has ever given serious thought to the improvement of Harijan life. It seems there is no end to our miseries", he added.