There have been countless debates and deliberation on how to abolish manual scavenging and empower the community to live with dignity and have access to their constitutional and fundamental human rights. From bringing in legislation to recommending several rehabilitation approaches, policymakers and civil society have made efforts, at least on papers, to end manual scavenging. However, these efforts have largely failed to reap desired outcomes on the ground due to the shoddy implementation of the laws, public apathy, and failure to mainstream scores of people involved in this inhumane profession.
According to the 2011 Census, as many as 2.6 million dry latrines exist in India. What this means is that despite manual scavenging being prohibited, it continues to exist and it seems the government chooses to be in a state of denial. Apart from cleaning of dry latrines, scavenging in other forms like cleaning of sewers, tanks, downloading & uploading of excreta, disposal of infected solid and liquid waste without basic equipments and safety measures, also continues to exist. It puts a question mark on the claim that manual scavenging is eliminated and only a few manual scavengers are left to be rehabilitated.
Despite successive governments claiming development, manual scavenging continues to persist in India, data shows. According to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for more than 72% of the insanitary (dry) latrines in India. How are they being maintained, if not manually? Further, the maintenance of sewage and community toilets is also done by the same community. They are now categorised as sanitation workers. While sanitation workers are involved in manual cleaning of the human excreta by entering septic tanks and sewer lines, the government refuses to consider these sanitation workers as manual scavengers. Will the denial of the problem help us eradicate this inhumane practice that has doomed a particular community – Dalits – for ages?
Can any nation claim to have made adequate progress if its most vulnerable section of people like manual scavengers continue to struggle for dignity? This question emerges from existing conditions of manual scavengers cleaning human excreta and facing the brunt of socio-cultural prejudices and discrimination in the society. Development is being defined and weighed in terms of GDP, growth rate, currency exchange rates, export-import equations, and high impact value indicators. But, people involved in manual scavenging are yet to get their self-respect.
In the age of mechanisation and digitisation, manual scavengers are cleaning human excreta with their bare hand in a life-threatening and inhumane condition. Generations have passed, but their skills and opportunities have remained limited to scavenging, picking up solid and liquid waste, cleaning toilets in houses, hospitals, railways. Women and girls representing manual scavengers and Dalit community living in slums can be seen running from one house to another for domestic works and get mere Rs 10-15 per hour for their labour. Their children, especially girls, fail to receive basic education and are considered as cheap labour. This is the time to revisit the plight of manual scavengers in light of development philosophy “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”.
Thousands of manual scavengers are living in harsh conditions without any hope for a life with dignity. It is difficult for them to overcome embarrassment and disrespect they face every day, every moment and everywhere. Households they were serving used to wash gates touched by them, put money for them on the ground, alerting kids to be away from them. Manual scavengers were never allowed to touch public water taps. It was not an easy task for them to get their children admitted to schools. Their children, if admitted, were asked to sit away from others in schools. This is a general background manual scavengers carry in slums of Lucknow. While the numbers of dry toilets have decreased and manual scavenging is non-existent for the government, they remain vulnerable to social, cultural and economic biases and marginalisation.
In a recent engagement with the community in three slums of Lucknow, manual scavengers indicated that reduction in the number of dry latrines does not mean that their life has become better and they have gained dignity of their life. It is just a change in forms of scavenging. They are entering 30-40 deep tanks and sewers full of human excreta floating around above their neck. When they come out of these sewers soaked in human excreta, nobody wishes to touch them, leave aside treating them with dignity. People from other social groups still do not participate and eat in their family functions like marriage. Women and girls are still doing all dirty works in households of different social groups. Persons from other social groups are taking away government jobs and contracts meant for our community. “They pay us a little to get the job done. The contractor gets a higher amount for the work but pays only Rs 3000/- per month,” says a woman scavenger in one of the 700 identified slums in Lucknow.
They can’t even switch to another profession as most of them are illiterate and have no exposure to any work, other than sanitation related work. Many of them are old. They lack confidence in running self-employment projects. Many of them are not even willing to avail any skill development training.
Apart from the social and economic biases that this community undergoes, manual scavenging is also marred by gender discrimination. Manual scavenging is a gender-based occupation with 95% of them being Dalit 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.
Manual scavenging, an outcome of deeply-rooted caste prejudices has for long plagued our society. Such a humiliating profession should not find any place in a functional democracy. In 1993, it was with this objective that the government banned construction of dry latrines to discourage manual scavenging. In addition to this, legislation- ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013- was enforced under the UPA-II to abolish this practice. Furthermore, while the entire country is making efforts towards ‘Swachh Bharat, the conditions of those directly involved in the process of keeping the country clean are still waiting for the dignity of life and livelihood. They continue to live as ostracised community- earlier as manual scavengers and now as sanitation workers.
About Author: Akhilesh Tewari, director of Sarathi Development Foundation, carries 27 years of experience as a grassroots level facilitator, social scientist, entrepreneur, Advisor to Government, and consultant with national and international development agencies.