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Affirmative action Pak style: Only Christians allowed to clean drains

Affirmative action Pak style: Only Christians allowed to clean drains

In the Land of the Pure, only the Christians have a right to do sanitation work. Yeah, that’s how Pakistanis view their country—Pak (pure, from which the more famous word ‘pakeezah’ also arises) and stan (place). So, where the all-powerful army brings out job vacancies for sweepers, advertisements make it clear that these jobs are reserved only for Christians.

This is affirmative action with Pakistani characteristics. While other countries use affirmative action and reservations in jobs to elevate the marginalized and the poorer sections of their populations, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan uses it as a weapon to keep its religious minorities in check and perpetuate their non-Muslim and, thereby, low status in the country. In Sunni-majority Pakistan, if the Christian minority is not able to fill up all the sweeping jobs, these are then given to the Hindus.

No Muslim is hired for such unclean and dirty work. In fact, the country’s politicians ensure that this discrimination is made only lawful. Prime Minister Imran Khan's party ensured that if there were any Muslims doing the cleaning, they should be disallowed from doing it. A resolution to this effect was moved by Akmal Khan, a member of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who wanted Muslims found working as sweepers to be promoted as guards or peons. Khan's resolution was  clear that all sweepers in the district hospital can only be Christians.

Pakistanis find ways and means to perpetuate and prolong this kind of religious prejudice. Beside faith-based discrimination in recruitment, the government also ensures that the sanitation staff is kept economically deprived as well. The Christian sweepers are paid a salary as low as Rs 12,500 (6,000 Indian rupees), a salary which is well below the minimum wage rate. And that money too is not easy to lay hands on; these people often don’t get paid for months.

Last year, the sanitary workers did not get paid for five months at a stretch till September 2019. The sanitary workforce in Islamabad and Karachi had to go on a strike demanding that their meagre wages be given. Once the stink began to rise in the cities literally, politicians and the contractors moved to ensure that the paltry wages were released. It is estimated that Christians form a meagre 2 per cent of the nearly 200 million Pakistanis, but hold about 80 per cent of the sweeping jobs.

The rest of the sanitary jobs are held by the Hindus, who number barely 1.6 per cent and who also suffer utter poverty and debilitating bigotry. The sanitary staff does not just suffer religious discrimination and economic deprivation, they also have to face humiliation at every step of their lives.

For example, in the Muslim-majority Pakistan, doctors often refuse to treat sweepers as they are considered unclean. Much indignity is heaped upon the sanitary staff. In their daily work, usually their only tools are their bare hands with which they take out plastic bags and faeces so that the dirty water can flow freely. Before their climb down into the urban sewers, they mutter their prayers—mostly to Jesus, and step into the muck to unclog the drainage. Prominent Pakistanis have taken up this blatant discrimination at the highest levels.

"I fail to understand as to why sanitary workers jobs are allocated for #Christians only? Why not for all? What if such jobs are for only Muslims in UK, USA or elsewhere in the West? You shit, and we clean. This should stop now. #EqualityForAll" The good news is that a number of Christian organizations too have taken up the cause for their people. Christian websites have highlighted the plight of these people and former legislator and lawyer, Mary James Gill, has taken up cudgels on behalf of the sanitary staff.

She believes that Pakistan continues to ignore the plight of the Christian sanitation workers. Pakistan has always worn its Muslim identity with pride. One way of being proud is perhaps to keep the Muslim away from dirty jobs. Especially when lesser humans are available to do the job.