A reminder: Sanitation workers are human beings

Published: September 4, 2012

For their humble service to society, they are referred to by the derogatory term ‘choora’, roughly translating to filthy. PHOTO: AFP

It is World Coconut Day on September 2, a day to,

“Propagate the importance of this tree and to make people aware about the benefits of the fruit”.

While the day is also meant to remind people about people whose livelihoods depend on the fruit, rising salary demands from fruit pickers have left much of the global industry looking at alternative farming methods.

In India and Thailand, monkeys are a popular alternative. They work cheap (mostly for bananas), don’t need uniforms (or any clothes for that matter), and according to studies, are five times as effective as human pickers.

The monkeys are doing a job nobody else wants. The work is tiring. The hours are bad. The pay is low. The conditions are dangerous. But they do it anyway, because as long as the owner is good to them, they are satisfied with life.

However, the sub-human workers have shown one human tendency. Abuse them and they will quit and run away. Or, in at least one verified case from Thailand, drop coconuts on an abusive owner’s head (before running away).

Here in Pakistan, we also have sub-human workers doing a job no one wants to do. Except these workers are only considered sub-human because of the religious bigotry inherent in the society. They are the sanitation workers of Pakistan. Predominantly Christian and under the poverty line, these men and women spend their lives doing work that most Muslims consider unclean, and which people with the means to hire domestic staff would not be caught dead doing.

For their humble service to society, they are referred to by the derogatory term ‘choora’, roughly translating to filthy. They are bracketed together as criminals, drug dealers and wastrels, and are often treated as readily-available human punching bags when the situation requires one.

Even the civic agency doesn’t care about them. Despite the fact that sanitation workers’ salaries had been held up last year, the CDA continued to invest millions in important things like upgrading senior staff’s houses and paying for repairs to official cars allegedly damaged by the incumbent chairman’s son.

And those are the lucky ones.

As a result of the Rimsha Masih blasphemy case, the last few weeks have seen hundreds of Christians run from their homes in Mehrabadi. There were signs a peaceful resolution could be achieved, considering that a medical report on the girl found that her brain was underdeveloped and she was indeed underage.

But then came the accuser’s new lawyer, Abdur Raheem. He was quoted by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper as saying that if she is not convicted, Muslims could “take the law into their own hands”. The same story also says Raheem took on the case for free because he was convinced that Masih should be punished, before quoting him as saying,

“This girl is guilty. If the state overrides the court, then God will get a person to do the job.”

Isn’t that a call for vigilante justice?

Oh, and did I mention he has a picture of Mumtaz Qadri hanging in his office? Or that he is head of the Khatam-e-Nabooat Lawyers Forum? The same guys who showered rose petals on Salmaan Taseer’s aforementioned assassin?

“There are many Mumtaz Qadris in this country, and we will support them”, Raheem was quoted as saying in The Express Tribune.

To me at least, that looks like an open call to murder a child who even Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat and Sipah-e-Sihaba leader Ahmed Ludhianvi said should be freed if proven to be mentally incompetent to stand trial.

How bigoted does a man have to be to make Ludhianvi sound like a tolerant liberal?

All Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Maulana Tahir Ashrafi was quoted as saying,

 “We demand an impartial and thorough investigation into the case. Strict action should be taken against all those accusing the girl if she is found innocent.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Raheem said,

“This (incident) is a conspiracy to ridicule Islam, and incite Muslims. We will not let this happen in our country.”

As far as I can see, the only one inciting Muslims to violence is Mr Raheem himself.

The sad thing is, Mr Raheem isn’t the only one claiming his bigoted personal opinions are facts.

For the people of Mehrabadi who are currently living in a park in G-9, an attempt to set up temporary tents was shelved after local residents protested, while those interested in returning to the area were told not to pray in their church anymore because it is disruptive. Say that to a right-winger and your detached head will be bouncing around the floor.

Although the locals have every right to ask the government to disallow squatters from hanging around their homes, calling them “suspicious”, as one local did without a shred of proof about their “suspicious” activities, reeks of intolerance.

Are they suspicious because they do the jobs no one else wants to?

Then do them yourself.

Are they suspicious because they are not educated?

The same applies for half of the country’s Muslims.

Are they suspicious because they are poverty-stricken?

So are many Muslims.

Are they suspicious because some members of their community are criminals?

So are some Muslims.

Or are they suspicious just because they are not Muslim?

Whatever the reason, if they want their city kept clean and don’t want minority communities living besides them, they should look into hiring trained monkeys.

Or they could just take the easy way out and treat sanitation workers like human beings.

Read more by Vaqas here or follow him on Twitter @vasghar

Vaqas Asghar

Vaqas Asghar

A sub-editor on the Islamabad city pages of The Express Tribune, Vaqas holds a Master's degree in IR from Iqra University. Before joining ET, he taught history and was also a member of the editorial staff at Blue Chip Magazine. He tweets as @vasghar (twitter.com/vasghar)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://bigsaf.newsvine.com bigsaf

    Well done in highlighting the plight through a different lens. We need to sanitize our dirty, apathetic and bigoted hearts ourselves, respect the dignity of every worker and non-worker and look after the welfare of all citizens, especially our vulnerable minorities. Recommend

  • RK Singh

    good article.Recommend

  • Asif Siddiqi

    Problem is not with Islam nor we ever fully embraced it. Problem is in our south asian culture which breeds hate and installs cast system, always looking for sacrificial species.

    Education could have brought some decency but that path is unheard of in Pakistan. India is relatively improving (inspite of its population size and issue’s magnitude) but for Pakistan … we have taken an absolute U-turn from reason and sanity. Islam is just a toy in our hand which we modify as we please. Prophet said, “Cleanliness is half of faith” (Muslim) and our christian brothers are helping us keep half of our faith. If you look at the issue, some thing which was asked from us, we so easily transferred it to them and now curse them for it.

    Half faith gone, not much is left and proof is all over the place. The grave issues surrounding Pakistan are not because of this small community but the way we have developed ourselves into a hate mongering empire which thrives on blood.. Allah is just and this is why we see good things not happening. So be it till we ourselves don’t change ourselves and practice the true religion. Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    Nice piece..Recommend

  • Vigilant

    @Author
    What you want to discuss Plight of Sanitation Workers or Minorities??? Sanitation Workers are not only Christians but also Muslims from specific caste in many areas of Pakistan. Recommend

  • Randomstranger

    Totally agree. The original churas are Jats and Gujjars, who should be treated like sub-humans, and not these poor poverty stricken people.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Very nicely written.
    The Rimsha case is an excellent opportunity for the government / judiciary to assert itself and regain some of their totally lost credibility, if they act decisively and quickly. Recommend

  • Sana

    you have mixed too many topics… Recommend

  • trueee

    ya i was shocked to hear the word “choorah” for christians from some of my educated and modern friends. i was disgusted.Recommend

  • John B

    The problem of “Choora” or “untouchable” is a plague of the subcontinent which is withering away in India due to empowerment of the down trodden. Add a mix of religious bigotry, it is a hard task to tackle in the PAK environment but not impossible.

    The same situation of treating the poor sanitation workers, who happen to be Christians for several historical reasons, also persists /persisted in Cairo. However, in collaboration with Germany the waste management system made them as employees with decent wages and fairly improved their livelihood.

    Poverty of the down trodden is the root cause in reinforcing the Choora concept and if a systematic discrimination in bringing them into mainstream work force persists, then the system will prevail in many forms. It is a fact that if the individual from the down trodden segment moves up the economic ladder, those who shun them begin to assimilate them and over time the concept of untouchability vanishes from the society. India made a concentrated effort in this regard and have progressed a long way. The same cannot be said of PAK since the very existence of the problem is not a focus.

    A quote from the very first page of an Indian middle school math text book “untouchability is a sin against humanity”. A child who reads this every time when he/she opens the text book begins to reason and if that child happens to be from “untouchable” segment she/he develops a positive reinforcement that it not her/ his fault for being treated that way.

    To solve the problem, first one needs to acknowledge the problem. India had Gandhi who awakened the society and the government made sincere effort to address the issue.

    PAK cannot say that in Islam everyone is equal and ignore it, since this is a societal problem. Recommend

  • http://wheretobuyauthenticjordans.com/ buy real jordans

    I think Erika Napoletano is especially spectacular at pulling this off. She’ll talk about some awesome/outrageous that happened to her or someone she knows and leads with what happened and then shows you what you can learn from it.Recommend