Frontline (http://www.flonnet.com/ vol.23, number 18) and the otherindia group
are bringing the plight of scavengers to the attention of the public.
http://www.ambedkarscholarships.org/ has information about scholarships to students from scavenging families.
Please have a look at these.
I remembered Gandhi's 'infatuation' about cleaning toilerts and googled 'Gandhi on cleaning toilets' and found several articles which seem to substantiate Annie Zaidi's core assertions. Some links and excerpts below.
"Gandhi had deliberately not permitted toilets in private homes, so that everyone had to use the row of public toilets at one end of the ashram. Gandhi’s reasoning was that cleaning public toilets was the contentious issue on which the caste oppression was based. So, the best way of getting rid of the prejudices, equalizing society and teaching people a lesson in humility was to make them do the work they so despised.
Millions in India are labeled "untouchables" because of the work they are forced to do by the caste system. Only the low castes must do the lowly jobs like street cleaning, garbage pick-up and cleaning public toilets. Because the jobs are menial and considered "unclean" the pay is negligible, forcing the "low caste" to live in abject poverty and ignorance, the vicious cycle that condemns them forever.
Untouchability, and the seeming inability of Hindus and Muslims to get along, are the two major conflicts that divide the Indian community. Both these issues were given appropriate emphasis in the training schedule at the ashram.
Everyone, without exception, was required to participate in the cleaning of the toilets. Each person, like the "untouchables", had to carry buckets of nightsoil and urine to the fields, empty them in trenches, cover the trenches, wash the buckets clean and replace them for use. Sometimes this work had to be done twice a day, which meant having a second bath and this time washing your own clothes.
The first time I was assigned this duty at the age of 12 I found it revolting. But, when everyone, including grandfather, was doing it who could you complain to? I performed the chore obediently and found that with time the work became less revolting. It helped me, and the others, understand the value of work and become truly humble.
Shriman Narayan once confessed his extreme revulsion at having to do this work. He was born into a rich Brahmin family and had just returned from England with a doctorate from the London School of Economics. His family members, like millions of others, were ardent followers of Gandhi. He came to Sevagram Ashram to pay homage to Gandhi and seek guidance for future work. However, like everyone else, from the day he stepped into the ashram Shriman was assigned the duty to clean the toilets. Gandhi did not spare anyone. Shriman was not used to this type of work, or any work for that matter, since he came from a home where they had servants for each member of the family. However, not even he could refuse to do this work. The first day he did it with utmost reluctance.
Then he sought an excuse. "I hold a doctorate from the London School of Economics," he argued. "I am capable of doing great things. Why do you waste my time and talents on cleaning toilets?"
Gandhi replied: "I know of your capacity to do great things but I have yet to discover your capacity to do little things. So, if you wish to seek my guidance and blessings you will have to observe all the rules of the ashram." "
"A clean-up caste:
There have been some persuasive arguments to pin the origin of the scavenger class on Muslim conquerors of India: it started for the convenience of their ladies in purdah. There is some truth that they used captured warriors as porters of night-soil. There are clear references however, in ancient Naradiya Samhita and Vajasaneyi Samhita to designated slaves —Chandals & Paulkasas, for example— for cleaning up toilets. Those two castes are referred to in Buddhist times also. The Mughals may however have introduced the bucket-privy and created a new caste label called Mehtars. Finally, the catch-all, derisory name, Bhangi for these abused people emerged."
"And softly, he adds: "Gandhiji used to be furious about our treatment of scavengers. "In my next birth I want to born a Bhangi," he raged. I am working to make sure he need not be born again for this." There's a good chance Gandhi is less angry today."
"Middle class Indians in cities, flushed with metro and mall-generated excitement, are wont to dismiss the caste system as a relic that no longer holds sway, at least in urban areas. Yet, the steady stream of jamadars who spend their days cleaning out the toilets of houses both modest and grand, a job that other domestic staff resolutely refuse to consider, is indicative of just how deeply rooted caste consciousness is. Gandhi himself identified toilet cleaning as key to revolutionizing society. He stressed repeatedly that in a society's approach to private and public sanitation lay its commitment to true freedom and dignity. But if Gandhi was correct in his beliefs, then it is authoritarian China, not democratic India that has in fact achieved self-respect for its citizens.
Yu Bao Ping started work as a public toilet cleaner and attendant in Beijing's Jiao Dao Kou neighborhood last September. Originally a rice farmer from Anhui province, the 38-year-old is ecstatic at having landed such a good job. He says that compared to the backbreaking labor of farming, cleaning toilets is a cinch. It gives him a stable income, and more importantly, a chance to broaden his horizons in the big city.
"I have made so many friends through the toilet," he says. In several older sections of Beijing, homes still lack private bathrooms and an entire lane uses the communal facilities. Yu works in one such community latrine. "Everyone in this neighbourhood comes through these doors," he says, "and I have met so many different kinds of people, including foreigners.
1) http://paddlesweep.blogspot.com/ has this to say about Sulabh (second link above):
Sulabh International is a social service organization which works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation, health and hygiene, non-conventional sources of energy, waste management and social reforms through education, training and awareness campaigns. The organization has developed the Sulabh Shauchalaya-technology, which is technologically appropriate, socio-culturally acceptable and economically affordable.
2) Annie Zaidi mentioned that Gandhi’s opinions on the above issue were controversial and that he had differences with Ambedkar. From
"Ambedkar told Gandhi in October 1932 "that I have no interest in the temples being thrown open, common dinners and the like, because we suffer thereby.... I only want that social and economic hardships should end". Ambedkar said, "It is a mistake to suppose that it (untouchability) is only a religious system.... It is also an economic system, which is worse than slavery.... History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics”.
Mahatma Gandhi wanted the `untouchables' to continue as helots but better helots with improved knowledge of their work and greater devotion to their "sacred duty" -- more contented, cleaner, and free from weaknesses like drinking and meat-eating, for which he often upbraided them. He said, "I would, therefore, suggest to reformers that they should not persuade Bhangis and Chamars to leave their occupation but they should, on the contrary, give them proper knowledge about their work”. "Under Gandhism", said Ambedkar, "the untouchables are to be eternal scavengers”. "
This seems to be due to Gandhi’s adherence to some sort of profession related caste system for a long time. Gandhi’s opinions on several issues seem to have evolved and changed over time. After his often bitter discussions with Ambedkar, Gandhi seems to have finally changed his opinions on caste. Here are a couple of Gandhi quotes taken from “Castes of Mind” by Nicholas Dirks, Priceton Uni. Press , 2001 (page 234).
” When, years later, Gandhi defended himself against attacks by Ambedkar over his views of caste, he wrote that “Caste has nothing to with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger. But I do know that it is harmful both to spiritual and national growth.” At roughly the same time, he stated that “Caste has to go”"
These statements of Gandhi do not seem to be well known. The references that Dirks gave are: Gandhi, Collected works, vol. 63, p.153, vol. 62, p.121