By Atharva Pandit:
“A national shame,” stated the Father of the nation, Gandhiji, about the practice which was a shame about six decades ago, and is still a shame six decades after: manual scavenging. Manmohan Singh called it the darkest blot on India’s developmental process, and Babasaheb Ambedkar, in his turn, pinned the blame on Gandhi, Congress and the Hindu community by writing, “of the 240 million Hindus, 60 million do the dirty work of scavengers and sweepers.” Certainly, something must have changed in all these years, after so many distinguished personalities voicing their opinions and their anger on the issue, and calling for it to be scrapped and changed? As it turns out, and it isn’t all that surprising either, the answer is no, nothing has changed. And manual scavenging, the act which forces people, humans like you and me to gather the excreta of other humans with hands- sometimes even bare- and clean open toilets and latrines, continues.
The root of this practice is something which has never ceased to influence, to a certain extent, the modern society in India- the caste system. But even within hierarchy of the caste system, manual scavengers languish at the bottom, looked down upon by the higher castes, and considered far too menial even by other lower caste members, they have, not surprisingly, next to no social existence.
The Dalits of such kind, the repressed among the repressed, are usually from the Valmiki sub-caste, which stands further divided into regional groups, namely: Chuhada, Rokhi, Mehatar, Malkana, Halalkhor and Lalbegi. Those unfortunate enough to have been born into the Valmiki class, or any of the sub-castes for that matter, are doomed to carrying out the practice, whether they like it or not, since the “tradition”, such as it is, which has been followed by their ancestors for the past many decades, cannot be broken and needs to be inherited. A person born into a family of manual scavengers has to, by default, become a manual scavenger; no questions asked. The newlywed woman in a household, also has to join her family members in scavenging, and is forced to make a living out of it. Manual scavengers are outcast from the regular village or town, with a settlement typically consisting of camps and huts large enough to hold two or three members of the household, arranged outside of the community. They have restrictions, which include the exclusion of the scavengers from the activities of the other communities, and complete segregation of manual scavengers from the town or village.
In the 2011 national census, 750,000 families were counted as manual scavengers, still employed to clean human excreta and make their living on whatever little money they are able to scrap from it, which sometimes even wounds up to one rupee a day. However, the count that activists claim is much higher at 1.3 million. The chilling part is that it might even be true, since the government excludes from the census the railway employees who are engaged in cleaning of human waste on the railway tracks. Village panchayats and elected village councils have been legally restricted from employing manual scavengers, and their work demands that they restrict this shameful practice from being followed- but they end up doing the exact opposite. The municipal corporations and the said village councils fail to implement the prohibitions allotted against manual scavenging, and sometimes even perpetuate it. For example, a Human Rights Watch report states that the panchayat in Nhavi village in Jalgaon had, in fact, hired nine women on the basis of their caste to manually clean an open defecating site. It doesn’t help that across Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat- states where manual scavenging is still practiced explicitly- women are subjected to major participation, with 98% of all the manual scavengers being women. In several instances, women have refused to work, and have been threatened by the villagers and higher caste members. In November of 2012, in Manipuri district of Uttar Pradesh, several women engaged in the practice of scavenging decided to cease their work. However, members of the Thakur caste, dominant in the district, threatened to deny them any right to graze their cattle inside the village premises and expel them from the village. When the women still didn’t oblige, the men from the Thakur community confronted the men of the household. “If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets,” some of the men from the community threatened, “we will beat them up. We will beat you up.” It’s not even that the scavengers are illiterate, not always at least. One of the many scavengers interviewed by the Human Rights Watch had a college education and had degree in commerce and banking, but was hired by the village council as a manual scavenger since he belonged to that particular caste.
The problem, serious as it is, is not just limited to the rural areas. There have been several instances wherein the urban municipal corporations have hired men from a certain caste in order to clean roads and drains. The Ministry of Railways has reported that about 7,000 trains run without a proper toilet system- the human excreta in such trains is directly disposed on the tracks, and the task of cleaning it is left to the manual scavengers hired by the urban corporations.
It’s not as if the government hasn’t done anything about the practice. Several laws and prohibitions have been passed so that manual scavenging can be prevented. Manual scavenging was abolished by the legislation in 1993, and ever since several laws have been placed so that the practice can finally be ended, including The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, passed on 6th September 2013. In February 2013, Delhi had announced that it was going to ban manual scavenging, and it was the first state to do so. In March 2014, the Supreme Court held the ban on this practice, and ordered for it to be prevented. Those who employ or hire manual scavengers are liable to a year in jail and/or a fine of Rs. 2000. However, the Indian government has kept extending the deadline for ending manual scavenging, already extending it at least eight times by July 2014.
In this year’s National Election campaigning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on several occasions, highlighted that “toilets are more important than temples.” Indeed, but only modernization of the sanitation system, while an important step, will not be enough. The problem of manual scavenging is a social one, wherein casteism and class-based bias has played an important part ever since ancient times. It is the need of the hour to recognize those forces which are still into hiring manual scavengers, usually those on the local levels in both urban and rural settlements, and bring them to books. It also needs to be understood by the people- again; in both urban and rural areas- that manual scavenging is illegal, and its encouragement can land one in jail. The government, on its part, needs to take immediate measures through rehabilitation processes wherein those employed as manual scavengers can be employed in some other respectable occupation. Government officials need to enforce the laws, rather than just passing them. The practice of carrying on your head the human excreta day in and day out is a serious health hazard and unless constructive, stringent measures are decided and applied, India will always be known as one of the hotspots of this shameful practice rooted in the social problems of our country. Manual scavengers really are Harijans, the people of God and it is our and our government’s responsibility to stop shunning them from our society and start embracing them and including them in it.