In 2017, Over 100 People Have Already Died While Cleaning Your Shit. Are You Listening?

India has been independent since 1947, but have all Indians got their independence?

India may have got its independence in 1947, but the caste system still prevails in our country. The caste system is so deeply ingrained in the minds of Indians that even after decades, we haven’t been able to overcome this discriminating and inhuman factor. Lower caste people in India have been treated as outcasts every time in nearly every field, time and again.

In the Rig Veda, not only has an interpretation of the origin of the caste system been provided, a divine classification of their functions and their positions in society have also been specified. The Purusha Suktam hymn in the Rig Veda describes the creation of living beings as per the four varnas (castes): Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. It states“The Brahmin was his mouth; His two arms were made the Rajanya (Kshatriya); His thighs became the Vaisya; from his feet, the Shudra was produced.”

Therefore, upon the basis of the caste of the people, their occupations were decided. The people of the lowest caste were given all the menial jobs – which according to the upper caste people, were ‘polluting’, and hence, were not appropriate for their status. All the unclean and unhygienic tasks were done by the Shudras, who had no other choice but to work as manual scavengers or sweepers to sustain their lives.

The Rig Veda may have justified all this, but 21st century India really needs to rise above all this and abolish such practices. (Image source: Facebook)

Till date, many in India do not have right to choose their occupations. As it is, the working conditions are not favorable for maintaining hygiene. Moreover, under heavy debts, the lives of these manual scavengers become even worse. Also, they generally have no option of changing their occupation – because caste discrimination is glued to Indian society in a way that in most cases, being born in an upper caste family is the only thing that can guarantee you a better livelihood. Lower caste people have rarely had the right to develop or rise above such discrimination.

Laws For Manual Scavengers/Scavenging

Manual scavenging in India has been related to the cruel and inhuman practice of untouchability.

Article 17, which comes under Part III of the Indian Constitution, deals with the abolition of untouchability. But not much has been implemented.

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.

Eradication Of Manual Scavenging Is A Must 

Introducing certain laws and regulations should not be the only task of various authorities and regulatory bodies. The implementation of these laws and provisions should be ensured by appointing people who can make sure that these are being followed, and that anybody who does not follow the rules and regulations is punished.

Bindeshwar Pathak in his work, “Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India“, states that the entire process of the liberation of scavengers includes not just talks about value conflicts or rehabilitation and the few changes in their means of livelihood. The liberation of these people is also closely associated with the change in their social status and the ‘mould’ of their social relationships.

All these aspects of liberation can be achieved only when dry latrines are not used at all. According to Pathak, Sulabh Shauchalayas can serve the purpose – and can also make conditions better for manual scavengers, whereby there will be no need to remove human excreta with bare hands.

As per researches and reports, there is a lack of proper working conditions and equipment and tools for manual scavengers in India. With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, though many dry latrines have been replaced with sanitary toilets in India, the employment of manual scavengers has still not decreased in various states of India. These toilets still have to be cleaned and made useable by people from lower castes. However, their job description is not defined, even though it’s essentially manual scavenging. Septic tanks are also cleaned by manual scavengers, without proper tools and help.

Every citizen has the right to life, liberty and security. Then, why are some people denied these fundamental rights?

In this year, more than 100 people, who were employed as manual scavengers, have died – either due to suffocation or other accidents occurring while cleaning human wastes or sewage tanks. Immediate actions need to be taken. After all, it’s completely inhuman to let people die by forcing them to be a part of a job, which is not only unhygienic but also proves to be lethal and underpaid.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network works globally against any kind of discrimination based on caste. It issued a report according to which manual scavenging, cleaning of dry latrines, cleaning sewage and many more activities are occupational forms of slavery to which Dalits are being exposed. According to this report (issued in 2015), over 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, sustain their livelihood by working as manual scavengers. Nearly all of the manual scavengers are underpaid – and at times, are given only ₹1 for working all day long, as a result of which they have to borrow money from upper caste people who often charge interest when lending money.

Ashif Sheikh, founder of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots-level campaign against manual scavenging, also considers manual scavenging to be a form of slavery. He stated that appointing someone to clean human waste should not be called employment because it’s inhuman and equivalent to slavery.

Bezwada Wilson wanted to eradicate discrimination on the basis of birth. So, in 1993, he led a nationwide movement, the Safai Karmachari Andolan, by bringing together Dalit activists. For the movement, he filed a PIL in the Supreme Court (SC), listing nationwide violators of the 1993 Prohibition Act. According to Wilson, “Manual scavenging is a blot on humanity, and if you engage in it, it is a crime you commit on yourself. So, don’t wait for the government, break free.”

Many more organisations, groups and individuals are fighting for the rights of manual scavengers and for the people who have been forced to do menial jobs. But, these will persist until strict punishments are not enforced upon the culprits who do not value the right to life and consider other humans inferior based on their family names or castes. 

People who care for the lives of other humans should join hands and help manual scavengers to get out of such slavery. Rewards should be given to the ones who report the people who are employing others as manual scavengers. Additionally, harsh punishments should be meted out to those who promote manual scavenging, even if the people involved are government officials at the local or national level. Manual scavengers should also be encouraged to raise their voices against the injustice they are being exposed to.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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