India is in shock over revelations aired on a recent episode of "Satyamev Jayate", which graphically portrayed the subhuman condition of Dalits.
Barred by social stigma from receiving a proper education or entering mainstream life, members of India's lowest caste – the Dalits, widely dubbed the "untouchables" – have to take up the livelihoods that no one else wants.
For some, that includes the humiliating, unsanitary job of cleaning human waste out of India's many open toilets – without running water or a drain, and with their bare hands.
Until recently, many Indians in higher castes were only faintly aware that such practices continued. But the issue has now been brought into the public spotlight, thanks to Bollywood star Aamir Khan and his TV show Satyamev Jayate ("Truth Shall Prevail"), which has become a roaring success as it deals with a number of social issues.
A July 8th episode, "Dignity for All", took a closer look at the hard lives of those relegated to the bottom of the caste system -- and highlighted the practice of "manual scavenging", as the waste-cleaning job is dubbed. Indians across the political spectrum expressed their shock at the programme's revelations.
"We were in a state of half-awareness all these years," Shahnawaz Hussain, an MP from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party told Khabar South Asia. "Any random survey conducted among urban Indians-- the kind who bask in the glory of India's new-found prosperity-- would reveal utter ignorance of this reality.
"But now thanks to Aamir Khan we are aware, and we are ashamed."
Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi state, told Khabar the problem "is a curse which refuses to go away."
"Half the problem is the lack of resources for constructing underground sewer lines and taking water supply to all parts of the country. There is a resource crunch which is too challenging," she said.
Stalin Padma, award winning documentary film maker on social issues, told Khabar: "Most Indians are in denial. The system of ‘pollution’ or spreading misgivings about touching or even seeing some castes of people still exists in many parts of India even though it is illegal."
Condemned by birth to a life of insults
The Satyamev Jayate episode covered a broad range of caste-based discrimination – which though technically illegal in India, but remains pervasive.
Kaushal Panwar, a teacher and author from the Dalit community, startled listeners when she described her ostracisation by professors and fellow students when she attended Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
"My father told me bear all the taunts and insults philosophically," she said. "Had it not been for the courage he instilled in me, I would have crumbled."
But it was the final guest, Bezwada Wilson, who caused maximum impact. A lifelong campaigner for human rights who founded the Safai Karmachari Andolan ("Manual Scavengers' Struggle"), was himself born into a family of "bhangis", as the waste-cleaners are known.
He recounted how his father carried "night soil" – an euphemism for human excrement -- in buckets on his head to landfills in the southern state of Karnataka.
Legislation adopted in 1993 to end the practice "has made no difference", Wilson said. "Would you believe it, Indian Railways, a government department, continues to employ thousands of people to clean toilets and rail yards with their bare hands?"
When contacted by Khabar, Indian Minister for Social Justice Mukul Wasnik said the government is committed to taking real action to solve the problem.
"I am happy that Aamir Khan has taken this up. He told me that he himself was not aware of this national shame," he said, pledging that sewer and toilet construction projects will be taken up soon. "We would welcome voluntary organisations interested in joining this mission," he added.
After the episode aired, Khan received a call from the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, inviting him for a meeting. The half-hour of talks, attended also by Wasnik, received major attention in the Indian media.
"I had gone to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the issue of manual scavenging," the 47-year-old actor said. "I requested him that this practice should end soon. The Prime Minister has assured me that he will look into this matter."