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This Is How We End One Of India’s Biggest Human Rights Violations

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WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

The viral picture of a manual scavenger’s son attending his father’s funeral, during the month of September 2018, reignited the debate and woke us from our slumber about the plight of manual scavengers in our country. Since 2017, one person has died every five days across the country, as analysed by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. Every state across India witnesses tragic deaths of these workers, however, these deaths aren’t recorded in the government data, because since 2013 manual scavenging is non-existent, at least on paper. These unfortunate cases bring forth the hollowness of the countrywide “Swachh Bharat” campaign. Additionally, it points toward the lack of bureaucratic and political will.

Though government authorities claim there have been several successful attempts to eradicate the filthy practice, the farce of such claims compared to the ground realities are as ugly as they are far-fetched. As per the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), Telangana reported 1,57, 321 dry latrines, but zero manual scavengers. Himachal Pradesh showed 854 dry latrines, but no manual scavengers. Chhattisgarh, too, recorded 4,391 dry latrines, but only 3 workers. Similarly, Karnataka recorded 24,468 dry latrines, but only 302 manual scavengers. These facts reflect the fact that the reality on paper is different from the reality on ground.

Why is the country struggling to eliminate ‘Manual scavenging’?

The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act (2013) defines a “manual scavenger” as an individual employed by a local authority or agency for manually cleaning, carrying, and disposing human excreta from insanitary latrines. Clearly, the authorities seem utterly confused when it comes to defining manual scavenging. This definition doesn’t recognise septic tank and sewer line cleaners as manual scavengers. This is, unquestionably, a result of sheer ignorance at an institutional level.

The situation with the Indian Railways is a disturbing reality – it is the biggest employer of manual scavengers. It hires individuals disguised as sweepers on contract, at the lowest possible price of approx ₹250 per day. It is a classic example of the government’s double standards. It denies existence of manual scavengers, but employs these sweepers to clean the toilets manually. States like Gujarat, Kerala, and Maharashtra had earlier denied the existence of manual scavengers, but an ongoing survey by the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) reveals the presence of manual scavengers in these states as well.

While the country is making leaps forward in economic development, the existence of inhuman practice takes us backwards and highlights our failure to ensure basic human rights. We urgently need a national-level consciousness, followed by strict adherence to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act (2013) by both state and the Central governments alike. Just legislative conformity or changes will not ensure an end to the inhuman practice. The consciousness to eradicate manual scavenging has to combine with technological solutions and rehabilitation programmes to offer alternative employment options.

Technological intervention is the way forward

On the occasion of World Toilet Day this year, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, launched the Hope Machine, India’s first sewage cleaning machine. The machine is designed to inject high pressure into tunnels and tanks, and can collect waste with a mechanical bucket. A gas-detecting device, a high-resolution inspection camera, and protective gear and clothing are some effective features that come along with the machine. Such functional technology, if implemented on a larger scale, could gradually address the issue.

Another efficient technological innovation is Bandicoot, developed by the startup Genrobotics. This robot is designed to clean manholes, collect waste, and remove clogs. It efficiently mimics the movement of a manual worker. Interestingly, the Bandicoot has four limbs and a bucket system attached to a spider-like extension, and is enabled with WiFi and bluetooth modules. The spider-like hand can clean upto 400 manholes in a month. Owing to its successful results in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala government is planning to implement this robot in more of its cities too. The Centre can consider implementing the same in other states as well.

Fixing the ends through CSR interventions

While the implementation of technology will eliminate the need of manual work, the affected workers still need to be rehabilitated through proper skill development and given employment opportunities. The evident hard task here is this: a community that has been involved in the profession for generations will require confidence and a mindset change to shift their profession. To help and hand-hold them, the government, public, and private organisations must together take up the onus.

With the right intentions, the companies under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ambit may create welfare programmes that aim at providing vocational training and employment to these now-liberated workers. There is a need to identify beneficiaries, initiate awareness campaigns, and hold counselling session around government and private initiatives. This is indeed the first and crucial step. Most manual scavengers are keen to discontinue and take up alternative jobs, but they lack the requisite skills to earn a livelihood. Therefore a prerequisite for the second step is to ensure training opportunities in easily adaptable occupations like beauty care, sewing, tailoring, driving lessons and more. Micro-financing is another way that can support people in setting up small-scale businesses like grocery shops, cycle repairing shop, tailoring and embroidery shops, amongst others.

Manual scavenging is modern India’s greatest shame that requires immediate action. In our efforts to address the issue, an integrated approach that focuses on behavioural change, legislative reforms, and public and private partnership is the only way out.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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