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MANUAL SACVENGING:“A NOXIOUS LEGACY OF SUFFOCATION AND SOCIAL STAIN”


“Who am I, you ask?

An untouchable, bereft of a mask.

I collect your garbage; sweep your city street,

Clean your gutters, and clear the shit you excrete.”

India has been independent since 1947, but have all Indians got their independence? Equity of status and opportunity, liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship is highlighted under the preamble of Indian Constitution adopted on 26th November 1949, since then sixty seven years have passed, India has moved drastically and made its place in the world in terms of democracy, technology, culture and its rich and varied heritage. India may have got its independence in 1947, but the caste system still triumph in our country. This caste system is so badly entrenched in the minds of Indians that even after decennium; we haven’t been able to vanquish this discriminating, shrewd and inhuman factor. These Lower caste people in India have been treated as outcasts and untouchable every time in nearly every field, time and again.

In the Rig Vedic period also, the occupations were decided on the basis of caste of the people. All the unhygienic tasks which were “polluting”, and hence, were not appropriate and not in accordance with the upper caste people were done by the Shudras, who were left with no other choice but to work as manual scavengers or sweepers to sustain their lives. Till date, the contemporary system of manual scavenging prevails and the Indian Constitution has failed to achieve the “Equality Of status” as mentioned in the preamble.

So for some, it may be the most nauseating or disgusting thing to do, for others, it’s the only way to earn one’s keep. From sewers, open drains, private and public dry toilets to septic tanks and railway tracks, more than half a million manual scavengers across the country are cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta and everything else that we flush down the toilet. They go inside the choked sewers and septic tank; hang on for hours scooping out the filth with bare hands and bearing the stench sewage.

Manual scavenging is a despised vocation of manually sweeping household dry latrines and cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta from dry latrines or sewers. It is a hereditary, caste-based occupation that by and large involves forced labour. More than an occupation, it has been a custom or practise that has continued uninterrupted despite all the available technology and alternatives. This demonic and sadistic practice has traditionally been enforced on a specific group people labelled as manual scavengers. More painful is the audacity and the deliberate dereliction of duty by the state machinery that blatantly denies the existence of this inhumane and callous practise of manual scavenging.

Manual scavenging is the anathema which was banned 25 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (prohibition) act, 1993, but it continues to find practitioners. The occupation persists mainly because of the continued presence of insanitary latrines. There are about 2.6 million insanitary lavatories (dry toilets) that require cleaning by hand, as per Safai Karmachari Andolan—an NGO that work towards abolishing manual scavenging, and perhaps, the only one in the country.

There are structural problems as well, which force people to enter septic tanks. “These Septic tanks are outlined imperfectly and poorly. They have engineering defects, which means that after certain point, a machine cannot clean it and this is the reason that manual scavengers have to go deep down the tank with a rod to clean the human excrete.”

The poignant situation could go from bad to worse. As under the policies of Swacch Bharat Mission, millions of septic tanks are constructed in rural India. And as per the reports from various data, by2019, some 30 millions septic tanks and pits would have been dug along the river Ganga. So at this point if the Central, State and Local sanitation programmes do not take up faecal sludge management as a priority, the onus will shift to these manual scavengers, who are the lowest rung of the society, and not on anyone else, to clean the dry latrines or toilets built with tearing hurry.

Moreover the situation even got substandard when we come to know that many cities do not even have proper sewerage that covers the whole city. Sometimes, sewage lines are blocked or even sewage lines are connected to storm water drains which get clogged and demands human intervention.

Not only but also Open drains are also badly designed, which allow people to dump solid waste into them, which heighten the problem. There are things which are disposed nad cannot be cleared by machines such as condoms, diapers and sanitary napkins. Improper disposal of such things clog the drains which force the manual scavengers to clean as cannot be done machines.

This lowly job is taken by the ones who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy which are Dalits-Valmiki or Hela, sometimes both knowingly and unknowingly that human faeces and urine harbour a variety of diseases. The community may carry infection such as Hepatitis A,E, Rotovirus and pinworms when they come in contact with these wastes, which even clearly explains why the life of these people are so short. They die as young as 40, falling prey to multiple health issues. Adding to this problem, repeated handling of human excreta without protection lads to respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia, jaundice, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning.

But the problem doesn’t stops here because manual scavenging is not only a caste based but also a gender based occupation with 90 percent of them being women. Households with dry latrines prefer women to clean the excreta instead of men as they are located inside the house. According to a Human Rights Watch report, on an average, women get paid as little as between Rs 10 and Rs 50 every month per household. It is much less than men who earn up to Rs 300 a day for cleaning sewer lines.

Well this is where the irony of Swachh Bharat Mission lies. On the one hand it aims to protect the dignity of the women by providing them with private sanitation spaces, and on the other hand it is perpetuating humiliation of women manual scavengers as they are the ones who clean human excreta from dry-pit latrines.

So manual scavengers say:

“Ours is a battle not for wealth; nor for power,

Ours is a battle for freedom, for reclamation of human personality.”

The fact that manual cleaning of drains continues across the country, often under unsafe conditions, is a blot on our society. If sanitation workers are not provided safety equipment, then the civic authorities must be held accountable. If they aren’t provided their wages, then there must be outrage. Manual scavenging must end

In India manual scavenging has been related to the cut-throat and inhuman practise of untouchability. There are various laws for manual scavengers and manual scavenging.

Article 17, which comes under Part III of the Indian Constitution, deals with the abolition of untouchability. From a legislative standpoint, such social practices give life to Article 17. In a seemingly fair democracy, the norm is the violation or deprivation while the exceptions shine as landmark judgments, policies, directives and orders to be forgotten and shelved till the next tragedy or in this case nauseating truth explosion. States owe a duty to all its citizens to protect them when they can’t do it themselves, when they are discriminated against and when laws stagnate in disarray.

According to The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, hiring or employing an individual for cleaning and carrying human excreta was prohibited. The construction of latrines without proper drainage and sewage systems, and the maintenance of dry latrines by manual scavengers were also prohibited.

In 2013, a new and significant legislation was brought into force. This legislation was a modified form of the Manual Scavengers Act, which was brought to stress upon banning manual scavenging, prohibiting all forms of it and to emphasise the rehabilitation of manual scavengers after carrying out necessary surveys.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act was introduced on September 19, 2013. As per this Act, the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers as well as their families was much needed. These steps would help in ensuring the dignity of the individual, which is enshrined as one of the goals in the Preamble to the Constitution.

Also, the right to live with dignity is implicit in the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution. Article 46 of the Constitution, on the other hand, provides that the State shall protect the weaker sections – particularly, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes – from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.

However, the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, arising from the continued existence of insanitary latrines and a highly iniquitous caste system, still persists in various parts of the country. The existing laws have not proved adequate in eliminating the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging in India.

Considering the seriousness of the situation government has taken a number of initiatives focussing on conversion of insanitary latrines, rehabilitation and employment of manual scavengers, scholarships for their children being the main focus area.

Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ (MS Act, 2013) which came into effect from 6thDecember, 2013 replaced Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.This Act intends to achieve its objectives to Eliminate the insanitary latrines and to Prohibit Employment as Manual Scavengers also hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.

● The act says National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) would monitor implementation of the Act and enquire into complaints regarding contravention of the provisions of the Act.

Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers(SRMS), a successor scheme to NSLRS ( National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents), was introduced in January, 2007 with the objective to rehabilitate remaining manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time bound manner. The responsibility of rehabilitation of the identified manual scavengers to the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation.

● Apart from these under Swachh Bharat Mission focus has been given on conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines.

● Under the Scheme of “Pre Matric Scholarship to the Children of those engaged in Occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards”, being implemented by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the children of manual scavengers are also provided scholarship.

● Honorable Supreme Court of India gave landmark judgment to identify and award compensation of Rs 10 lakh to dependents in deaths of sewerage workers who died while cleaning sewerage and septic tanks since 1993.

Despite a large number of schemes and provisions the inhuman practice of manual scavenging has continued.

● The National Safai Karmachari Commission which was mandated to implement the act has not been functioning properly. Its website has not been updated about recent developments and new initiatives.

● In urban areas municipalities are cash short to use machines for cleaning of the sewers or provide protective equipments. They generally blame contractors for any loss of life.

● The States/UT’s are slow in identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers as there is no time-bound plan for identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers.

● Further, in a case filed in the Supreme Court of India, many States/UTs gave affidavit that there are no insanitary latrines in their jurisdiction. Due to fear of contempt of the Court, they hesitate in reporting existence of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers in their States/UTs.

● At present the work of conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines is being attended to as a part of broad programme of construction of toilets. There is a need to have a time-bound approach as per the mandate of the MS Act, 2013, for conversion of insanitary latrines.

Rehabilitation of manual scavengers is also slow and in many cases not adequate due to various problems being faced, which include:-

1. Manual scavengers are mostly illiterate and have no exposure to any work, other than sanitation related work. Many of them are old. They lack confidence for running self employment projects. Many of them are not willing even to avail any skill development training.

2. Banks are hesitant about providing loan to manual scavengers. Even many State Channelising Agencies, due to low rate of recovery of loan from safai karamcharis, are not willing to extend loan to manual scavengers.

Due to low confidence levels the identified manual scavengers demand that they may be provided jobs of safai karamchari in local authorities.

However, the law itself is filled with many contradictions and faulty provisions.

The first loophole that should be pointed out is in part 2(1)(e) of the Act: “’Insanitary latrine’ means a latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either in situ, or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed: Provided that a water flush latrine in a railway passenger coach, when cleaned by an employee with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be an insanitary latrine.”

The government run Indian railways is responsible for the maximum number of manual scavengers in the country; this is the fact where the irony lies.

Adding to this another let-out clause is the mention of the term “Scheduled Caste” throughout the Act. According to the official definition, this term, only concerns Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. This definition excludes Dalit women from Muslim and Christian communities.

On the other hand, it is estimated that 1.3 million Dalits, especially women, are employed in manual scavenging. Therefore, not only is manual scavenging a legally prohibited occupation, it also breeds high levels of social discrimination and exploitation.

Part 2(1)(d) of the Act contains another major loophole: “‘hazardous cleaning’ by an employee, in relation to a sewer or septic tank, means its manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligations to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions, as may be prescribed or provided in any other law, for the time being in force or rules made there under”.

This provision is in itself a major barrier, when it comes to the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and preventing manual scavenging. It seeks to ‘legalise’ manual scavenging under the garb of ‘protective gears’. However, the Act does not specify what constitutes a ‘protective gear’. This is a loophole that is frequently exploited by those employing manual scavengers.

Furthermore, there is a clear lack of implementation of part 4(2) of the Act which states: “Without prejudice to the provisions contained in sub-section (1), Municipalities, Cantonment Boards and railway authorities shall also construct adequate number of sanitary community latrines, within such period not exceeding three years from the date of commencement of this Act, as the appropriate Government may, by notification, specify, so as to eliminate the practice of open defecation in their jurisdiction.”

However, according to the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a Delhi-based organisation which has been fighting for the manual scavengers for over two decades now, there have been thousands of deaths, on record, of manual scavengers, while cleaning open sewers. Despite the Act’s provisions, municipal corporations hire private contractors to employ scavengers to clean open sewers with their hands and broom. ‘Protective gears’ which legalise scavenging are often not provided. Well according to certain reports on manual scavenging by Human Rights Watch, the government has, extended the time limit to end manual scavenging eight times. Evidently, not much has changed since the implementation of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, to the one enacted in 2013. Besides, even though the Act mentions the word rehabilitation several times, not much is provided for. Nowhere does the Act ensure financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood and other similar provisions.

After all, whose fault is it that this mess has persisted for over twenty years now? The ones who created it in the first place or, the ones who have to continuously clean it up?

The phrase “Manual Scavengersmight be new for some but it is a humiliating daily reality for several in India. But this doesn’t mean that initiatives are not taken by people. Apart from government there have been initiatives taken by others in a way to raise more awareness among people.

A few years back, Madras Institute of development (MIDS) and IIT Madras jointly conducted a seminar on Manual Scavenging in Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (DoHSS), IIT Madras. Many Professors, researchers, activists and scholars participated in that seminar. A. Narayanan, a social activist who has been working on this issue for last five years said, we see people going into sewer lines, we sympathise with them. He highlighted that contractors use liquor to attract people for this work. They use liquor as a trump card for recruitment. This is an exploitative and caste based system which is sub-human. He asked, is any higher caste person doing this job? Even when gloves are given, are they going to be used by everyone? Well how is that possible that an upper caste person would do this job even when they are given gloves because this inhuman work is deemed to be performed by the lower caste people. One day cleaning of roads on some specific occasion with broom in their hands, by the upper caste people doesn’t show anything but that to create hype and make it fancy and visualize it that an upper caste person can also clean roads.

We have to create awareness among people so that uncontrolled garbage, sewage on street, open defecation etc. does not happen. Manual scavengers are there because of this, and creating awareness is the first step to realizing our collective responsibility in causing such a degrading practice to exist in the first place. Dr. Ismail called for eco-friendly toilets where children can defecate without being in fear of left behind closed doors as it happens in houses. He urged IIT and IITians to come out with innovative technology, model for toilets for children which they can use without fear where even rain water harvesting can be utilized for cleaning purposes. He ended his talk with some alternative and substitute toilets which can be replaced by present toilets to prevent manual scavenging and diseases spreading through it.

‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’ is a very open and common aphorism, taught since childhood. But why is this practice of godliness confined to one particular community, namely the Dalits to be more precise – the lowest among the social hierarchy in India? The most immediate reason that comes to our mind when we talk about the very existence and engagement of manual scavengers is poverty. However, Mr Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and the National Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan reiterates that ‘Poverty has nothing to do with Manual Scavenging, but the only Casteism”. But now what is more important to understand that this is what makes this practise a vicious cycle-“caste Identity.” Caste may not seem as dictatorial today as it was a hundred years back, but definitely, caste has a ripple effect even today. There is a kind of internalisation in the society that this job of cleaning has to be done by the Dalits. There are many examples of how even education and acquiring of other skill set has not let these scavengers come out of this. Despite getting the education or acquiring other alternative skill, watertight caste binaries don’t allow them to take up other professions.

The worst affected are the women among the Dalits. Around 95% of the manual scavengers are women. Along with caste, they have to bear the double burden of class and gender. These women have become permanent victim bodies because of the constant suppression of oppression and exploitation that they undergo.

Caste may not seem as dictatorial today as it was a hundred years back, but definitely, caste has a ripple effect even today. There is a kind of internalisation in the society that this job of cleaning has to be done by the Dalits. There are many examples of how even education and acquiring of other skill set has not let these scavengers come out of this. Despite getting the education or acquiring other alternative skill, watertight caste binaries don’t allow them to take up other professions.

Bezwada Wilson, who founded Safai Karmachari Andolan, says:

There’s a shameful practice with a tragic legacy that has gone on in India for millennia. It involves entrapping women, men and even children into a hated and humiliating occupation only because of the accident of their birth into the lowest caste.

Their burden is to gather human excreta, from individual or community dry toilets, with bare hands, brooms or metal scrapers and put them into wicker baskets or buckets. This they then carry on their heads, shoulders or against their hips into dumping sites or water bodies. Many are similarly employed to clear, carry and dispose of excreta from sewers, septic tanks, drains and railway lines.

Bezwada Wilson, born into the same caste, for most of his adult life has fought an extraordinary and inspiring battle against manual scavenging that humiliates and diminishes not just the scavengers but us all. The campaign he leads, the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is the largest movement against caste discrimination in post-Independence India, using the instruments of truth, a conviction about equal human dignity, non-violent resistance, and the law. With these, Wilson and his colleagues fight, resist and ultimately succeed in eroding centuries of the most disgraceful forms of caste oppression, with a focus on eradicating manual scavenging.

As we celebrate our 72nd Independence Day, what is more, shameful to our country than this? On the one hand so much money is spent on satellite technologies and cleanliness drives, but on the other hand, we have miserably failed to curb this gross practice of ‘godliness’ which costs human lives. Those who clean human excreta with bare hands suffer from different kinds of respiratory and skin diseases. Often more than not, these scavengers are not given the required safety gear while entering the sewers who get choked by the sudden release of toxic gases or get drowned in the sudden gush of sewer waters. In case of such an incident of death, cash assistance is all that is thought about, but that too very rarely.

What needs to be understood is that the solution is not in providing cash assistance but providing them with all the support.

As Dr B. R. Ambedkar said, ‘JHAADO CHODO, KALAM PAKDO” their real emancipation is in acquiring education. Any discussion today on caste smoothly lands upon reservation and reservation leads us to the debate on merit. In a society entrenched with caste, class and patriarchy it is crucial to understand that merit is birth into privilege. We are talking about merit in a country where even classrooms are filled with discrimination and prejudices. The rate of school dropouts is very high among the Dalits and even higher among Dalit girls, years of reservation have not been successful in bringing them to the mainstream. The focus needs to be on primary education where children are ensured discrimination free learning environment and equal learning opportunities. These safai karamcharis have been historically and deliberately kept on the margins and forced to clean the nation.

Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, and further a law was passed again in 2013. But despite these and other constitutional provisions, we as a country have failed profoundly to abolish this practice.

So now on whose shoulders does the accountability lie on?

Several deaths have occurred around Delhi NCR in the past few months on account of the sanitation workers not being provided with protective gear. Apart from the fatal risks, the element of caste continues to be associated with sanitation work. A vast majority of the sanitation workers in cities belong to socially and economically marginalised caste groups.

Due to illiteracy, societal subjugation and landlessness they are unable to gain social and occupational mobility. A lackadaisical attitude of the municipality is reinforcing existing discrimination and stigma accompanying sanitation work. The government, municipality boards and contractors have been exploiting the economic and social vulnerability of the community engaged in sanitation work by paying them low wages and depriving them of adequate equipment.

November 19 is World Toilet Day. Enormous progress has been made in the global effort to provide safe and affordable toilets for the world’s poorest citizens since World Toilet Day was first declared in 2001. Significant strides have been made in “reinventing” toilet designs for low-income, water-short, unsewered urban zones; celebrities such as Bill Gates and Matt Damon have brought this once-taboo topic into the open; and the Prime Minister of India–the country with the highest number of people still practising open defecation–has publicly declared that his country needs toilets over temples.

The goal of this day is to make the global community aware of their right to safe and dignified sanitation and to support public action and public policy to bring this right closer to those who do not enjoy it today. On this World Toilet Day, we focus on the back-end of the sanitation chain, on those who clean out latrines where there is no flush or sewer to carry away the waste. When this work is done without mechanical equipment and without protective clothing, scooping out faeces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits, it is called “manual scavenging”.

Letting sanitation workers die inside sewers is not “seva”. The increased death rate of sanitation workers has once again brought the focus back on the long-standing issue—eradication of manual scavenging.

But how can we eliminate manual scavenging by 2019 when we don’t even know how many manual scavengers are there in the country? Government has started a survey, visiting the sates and setting up camps, asking manual scavengers to come and declare their occupation. But this is not the way how it works. The survey officials need to reach out to those pockets of the region where manual scavenging is rampant and identify them. That way, the possibility of underestimating the numbers is reduced.

Well what is the reason that the country is still struggling to eliminate this “unclean” occupation?

We do not have the political will. While the government claims having constructed millions of toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission, it is completely silent about those who clean them. Who will think about them and understand their plight? Who should be held accountable for their deaths? The government is launching several campaigns to promote Swachh Bharat; it has already announced Swachhta Hi Seva campaign that will run till October 2. I want to ask, whether letting people die in the sewers is ‘seva’.

Whenever a sanitation worker dies in a manhole or gets asphyxiated, Delhi Jal Board says it is not their responsibility, NDMC says it is not their responsibility, state government says it is not their responsibility either. The same is true for the labour ministry. Private companies say that they are just acting as catalysts. There is not a single leader who can say “I take responsibility of sudden death and I am going to change things for this community”.

So where are we going wrong is the biggest question?

Most of the toilets built since October 2014 do not have continuous supply of water and are not connected to sewers. Secondly, these toilets are not built with twin-pit technology, as opposed to the government’s claim. At least 86 per cent to 90 per cent of the toilets have single pits. It means, every two to three years, the need will arise to empty them. Having a second pit gives households the option to shift to the second pit and let the contents of a full pit decompose before being emptied. With the proliferation of single-pit latrines and septic tanks we are creating a legacy that perpetuates hazardous cleaning.

Adoption of waste-to-energy technology in India is viable, considering the low calorific value in our waste. As high-combustion incinerators are relatively safer than low combustion-based technologies, and they work impressively in Japan and Sweden. They need a steady supply of dry and high-calorie waste along with regular maintenance. If these requirements aren’t met, they break down, spew nasty gases and don’t generate much electricity. They are also very expensive. In 2000, Singapore set up the biggest incinerator for more than US$500 million. It can deal with 3,000 tonnes of waste a day and generates up to 80 megawatts of electricity—enough to power about 80,000 US households. Some large cities in India can explore high- combustion incinerators, provided they meet stringent technological requirements. Moreover, it would take three times the size of incineration plants in Singapore to handle Delhi’s daily waste, if it is dry and high in calorie, which is often not the case.

Adopting innovative technologies is the way to end manual scavenging. “It is not going to be possible to eliminate manual scavenging unless we create the right technologies.” There are reportedly about 15 innovations developed across the country to replace manual scavenging. According to reports, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is using 70 mini jetting machines that can access narrow lanes and smaller colonies to clear the choked sewer pipes. In Thiruvananthapuram, a group of engineers has designed a spider-shaped robot that cleans manholes and sewers with precision.

While technology is considered essential to end this scourge, Ashif Shaikh, the founder of Jan Sahas social development society, is of the opinion that focusing only on technological fixes to end manual scavenging may not work. “It is a social and gender issue and can be eradicated by sensitising people about its ills. Their objective through various marches is to make women aware of their right to live with dignity. But not only liberating women but to assure them of “sustainable freedom”, they need to provide with an alternative livelihood option, which is difficult in many parts of the country as people belonging to this community are still looked down upon and refused jobs. It’s not that the manual scavengers don’t try to get jobs but they are not given jobs and so as to serve themselves and their family they are left with no other option but to put their hands into human excreta. So the government should turn its attention away from toilet construction and explore ways to empty pits without human intervention.

“Yet! The oppression that they face, we can’t imagine

With this casteism ingrained in our society, they are still at the margin

Are we still wondering what their life is like?

But would you be able to handle it when the reality strikes?”

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