In Pakistan, descendants of lower-caste Hindus who converted to Christianity centuries ago still find themselves marginalized, relegated to dirty jobs and grim fates. Christians are being forced to to clean sewers, a job their Muslim caste-system superiors avoid and relegate to Christians who are commonly referred to as “dirty.”
New York Times Before Jamshed Eric plunges deep below Karachi’s streets to clean out clogged sewers with his bare hands, he says a little prayer to Jesus to keep him safe. The work is grueling, and he wears no mask or gloves to protect him from the stinking sludge and toxic plumes of gas that lurk deep underground.
“It is a difficult job,” Mr. Eric said. “In the gutter, I am often surrounded by swarms of cockroaches.” After a long day, the stench of his work lingers even at home, a constant reminder of his place in life. “When I raise my hand to my mouth to eat, it smells of sewage,” he said.
A recent spate of deaths among Christian sewer cleaners in Pakistan underscores how the caste discrimination that once governed the Indian subcontinent’s Hindus lingers, no matter the religion.
Like thousands of other lower-caste Hindus, Mr. Eric’s ancestors converted to Christianity centuries ago, hoping to escape a cycle of discrimination that ruled over every aspect of their lives: what wells of water they could drink from, what jobs they could hold.Manual sewer cleaners, known as sweepers, are at the bottom of that hierarchy, the most untouchable of the untouchable Hindu castes.
But when the Indian subcontinent broke up in 1947 and Pakistan was formed as a homeland for the region’s Muslims, a new, informal system of discrimination formed. In Pakistan, Muslims sit at the top of the hierarchy. And as one of Pakistan’s small Christian minority, Mr. Eric has now been forced into the same work his Hindu ancestors had tried to avoid through religious conversion.
In July, the Pakistani military placed newspaper advertisements for sewer sweepers with the caveat that only Christians should apply.
Municipalities across Pakistan rely on Christian sweepers like Mr. Eric. In the sprawling port city of Karachi, sweepers keep the sewer system flowing, using their bare hands to unclog crumbling drainpipes of feces, plastic bags and hazardous hospital refuse, part of the 1,750 million liters of waste the city’s 20 million residents produce daily.
On a recent day Mr. Eric, 40, had been hired to clean three sewers for $6.
While Christians make up only 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 200 million, according to a 1998 government census, rights groups believe they fill about 80 percent of the sweeper jobs. Lower-caste Hindus mostly fill the rest of the slots.
When Karachi’s municipality tried to recruit Muslims to unclog gutters, they refused to get down into the sewers, instead sweeping the streets. The job was left to Christians like Mr. Eric, known derogatorily as “choora,” or dirty.
They spend hours inside the city’s sewers. Almost all of them develop skin and respiratory problems because of constant contact with human waste and toxic fumes. And for some, the job has been lethal. Doctors often refuse to treat the sweepers, who are seen as unclean and untouchable.
Officially, Pakistan denies the existence of caste-based practices in the country. But across the country, the discrimination persists.
One form of abuse commonly meted out on Pakistan’s religious minorities has been to accuse them of blasphemy, a crime that is punishable by death in the country, and that at times has been used to settle personal disputes.
In one infamous case in 2010, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, was sentenced to death, accused of blaspheming Islam. It later emerged that her Muslim colleagues had ordered her to fetch water as they harvested berries on a hot day. When she drank from the communal cup, they accused her of polluting it and an argument ensued.
The case was eventually thrown out for lack of evidence, after Ms. Bibi spent eight years on death row and her family was forced into hiding by the death threats they received.