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New Untouchables in Madras Sewers


When Craig Hendry, a bearded Australian living in Madras, went to apply for a visa extension, a bureaucrat slapped his passport into a drawer and sneered, ``You think you're going to change anything in India? You can't." Mr Hendry, 32, came to India to muck out toilets, for free. And in doing so, he and a dozen other foreign volunteers, who wear rubber fishermen's waders and clothes-pegs on their noses to block the gut-churning stench, are taking on a challenge where even Mahatma Gandhi failed: to revolutionise the idea, strongly ingrained in the Hindu caste hierarchy, that only the untouchables are fit for getting rid of human waste.

A more revolting job is hard to imagine. Public toilets anywhere in India are seldom cleaned. Madras is also plagued by severe water shortages so the city's poor have no choice but to squat alongside the pigs and wild dogs in the open sewers. Early in the morning in India, it is not unusual to see hundreds of people defecating quite naturally along the railway tracks, each with their precious jar of water.

Like most Asians and Middle Easterners, the Indians find the use of toilet paper disgusting. One Indian classical dancer complained at the Albert Hall that her concentration had faltered because of the thought of all the unwashed bums in her audience.

The Australians do not aim to upset the ancient Hindu caste system.

They simply want to improve the sanitation for Madras's slum-dwellers.

When the Australians descend on a public toilet, they are often met by hostility. The slum people try to take their mops. ``Stop it, stop it! Go away! You're shaming us," they cry. Kevin McKay's reply is: ``OK, give us a rest and take over yourselves."

The idea of helping Madras's poor came from his father, David McKay, a tempestuous one-time Methodist preacher who had taken his family to the outback to work with Aborigines.

``We thought that if we really wanted to serve, we'd go where we were most needed," said Kevin McKay. Inspiration came from Richard Attenborough's film, `Gandhi'.

The Australians ended up in Triplicane, a neighborhood on the edge of Madras's most vile slum. ``We just started clearing the street in front of our house," said Mr Hendry. At the same time the group, who considered themselves ``not religious - just spiritual", sought guidance through collective meditation sessons. ``We asked God what to do - we kept getting vague messages about water." This clicked with some of Gandhi's writings. The Indian philosopher insisted on cleaning out his own toilet at his ashram. He once wrote: ``If we did not cherish false notions in the name of religion, we would never tolerate such filth."

The Australian ``white sahibs" not only ran into suspicion from the slum-dwellers, but also from Madras's officials, for drawing attention to the city's failure to provide even the most basic sanitation for many of its five million inhabitants.

The group took on the challenge of cleaning the slum's Mambalam sewer, which had not been cleaned of its effluent for 40 years. They stood for a week in the stinking open channel. They even lowered a table into the muck and held a banquet. Soon afterwards, Mr Hendry got typhoid.

``At first everyone was happy to watch," Mr Hendry said, ``but now the people of one street will take over where the others leave off."

Ever the realist, he added: ``About 50 kids a day are swarming in. Of course we feed them if they work. Maybe that's why they come." - Independent.

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