Despite laws banning manual scavenging, it continues with impunity. It is time society gave these workers a leg-up so that they live a life of dignity and courage
By Deepti Jain
Manual scavenging is India’s shame and has been callously overlooked. Though in 2013, the parliament passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, its execution remains in a dismal state.
Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot recently said in a meeting of State Channelizing Agencies: “The practice of manual scavenging still persists in various parts of the country and states are not making adequate efforts to eradicate this inhuman practice. They need to take up this issue in a much more serious manner.”
Decades after independence, manual scavenging remains an inhuman reality of life and should be addressed urgently. Only then will the 1.3 million scavengers be pulled out of the quagmire.
Take the deplorable condition of 45-year-old Rajini Kumari. Every morning at 6:20 am, she enters the narrow lanes of Chakkarpur district in Haryana with a basket, broom and metal scraper to collect human excreta from dry toilets. She told India Legal: “At the age of 13, I started helping my mother collect garbage. People call us bhangans and we are looked down upon. Some do not even allow us to touch their doors and we are made to wait at a distance from their houses.”
The centuries-old practice of manual scavenging is caste-driven and closely associated with untouchability. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report—Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste and Discrimination in India—reveals that members of the Valmiki community are officially employed by municipal corporations to “collect night soil”. The women pick up excreta from dry latrines with their bare hands and put them in buckets. Many have inherited the jobs from their mothers or in-laws. The men, on the other hand, are expected to clean open gutters, sewers, manholes and septic tanks sans gas masks and other protective gear. This is a hazardous task and last year led to over 1,300 deaths. “The practice is to give cheap alcohol to the labourers who, after consuming it, will be inured to the stench and the filth they have to wade in,” said Narendra Rawat, a Gurgaon-based contractor. Eleven states have a high percentage of manual scavengers, including UP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Assam and J&K. Dry toilets are, in fact, banned in India under the Dry Toilet Prohibition Act, 1993.
These manual scavengers face huge discrimination when it comes to getting employment. Suresh Sumer, one of them, said: “Whenever I apply for a job, even in the municipal corporations in Delhi, I am always offered cleaning work. People look at my Aadhaar card and reject me.” Sanjeev Kharge, another victim, said: “I cleared my 12th standard with 75 percent marks but if I ask for work from shopkeepers, they hand me a broom and assign me cleaning work. My mother is a rag-picker and cleans toilets for a living. I now drive an auto-rickshaw.”
This discrimination continues despite a UN report—Breaking Free: Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers—saying that a comprehensive rehabilitation package should be given to scavengers which must ensure a discrimination-free, secure and alternate livelihood for them.
However, there are a few government schemes to help rehabilitate manual scavengers. The Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers gives loans to scavengers at low interest rates and also trains them in non-traditional professions. But this is just a drop in the ocean of discrimination.
In addition, these scavengers are also exposed to dangerous viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. These include cholera, jaundice and typhoid to name a few.
Manual scavenging is linked to the practice of open defecation in India. Shamefully, as many as 626 million people in our country defecate in the open, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s total open defecation percentage. This has a cumulative effect on health. According to the World Bank, one in every 10 deaths here is due to poor sanitation, leading to a total of around 7,68,000 deaths annually. Interestingly, annual losses per capita from poor sanitation in India are estimated to be $48. So there is an urgent need to build more toilets and Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s efforts towards the Swachh Bharat movement need to be lauded.
Activist Radhika Anand says that one of the reasons for laws not being effective is that manual scavenging has always been categorized as a health and sanitation issue. “Plus, governments in UP and Tamil Nadu did not implement the laws because of which people remained unaware of their rights. And those who dared come forward were suppressed by intense social pressure and violence and received no support from authorities,” she said.
But some initiatives have been taken. Last December, members of the Delhi-based Safai Karamchari Andolan embarked on a 125-day journey covering 500 districts across 30 states to raise awareness on this issue. They stopped at slums and roadside shanties and told sanitation workers to put pressure on the government to frame rules to end the practice and rehabilitate them.
Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, said: “There have been 12 deaths in Delhi, yet no one cares. Municipal bodies across the country push poor people into manual scavenging by employing safai karamcharis on a contractual basis.”
Another positive news to rehabilitate these workers was the Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation organizing a commercial motor driving training program a few months ago where 200 women were trained. Many of them are now working as drivers for Ola and Uber.
Meanwhile in Rajasthan, the Jan Sahas Social Development Society started a campaign in 2003 to liberate scavengers. They started with two villagers and have already rehabilitated and empowered over 21,000 women in Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. “The government needs to get serious about putting into practise laws banning manual scavenging and assisting the affected communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a press statement.
According to studies, a sum of Rs. 2-3 lakh is needed to rehabilitate and change the life of each manual scavenger in India, said journalist and Magsaysay awardee P Sainath. The budget allocation for this purpose stands at Rs. 10 crore. But first the will to rehabilitate them is needed.