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.
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.
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.
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.