“One manual scavenger dies every five days cleaning sewers and septic tanks” – National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK)
“[Manual scavenging] is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.” —National Advisory Council resolution, October 23, 2010.
Manual Scavenging is a moral tragedy forced upon a group of people since the early period of Indian civilisation. This group has been relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and continues to be the center of abuse. Even today, the people of this group are labeled “the untouchables”.
There are 1.8 million manual scavengers in India, and 80% of these are women. Despite the government’s significant focus on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, manual scavengers continue to work in high-risk and inhuman conditions.
From the dawn of Independence, India has been trying to tackle the problem of manual scavenging. In 1949, the Jawaharlal Nehru-led government set up an enquiry committee. It was called the Scavengers’ Living Conditions Enquiry Committee and was to look into the state of scavengers in Bombay.
Our founding fathers recognized this problem and abolished it by incorporating it in Article 17 of the Constitution, specifically in Chapter III. The Constitution of India declared freedom from these conditions to be a Fundamental Right, at par with Right to Life and Right to Freedom of Expression.
The Constitution, however, failed to put a stop to the cruel practice of manual scavenging, which in itself is a precursor to untouchability. The problem assumed huge proportions also because, at the time of Independence, the country had mostly dry latrines and cleaning them required human labor which was forced upon the so-called ‘low castes’, mostly from the Valmiki community. These men and women had to empty dry toilets with their hands, clean septic tanks, and clean sewers without any sort of protection. Even 70 years after Independence, their subhuman working conditions can be gauged from the fact that very often the rope tied to their waists (and from which they are lowered) are so weak that they break, resulting in immediate death.
The first formal legislation came not from the central or state government but through a local legislation by former Freedom Fighter G.S. Laksman Iyer, who was working as the chairman of Gobichettipalayan Municipality in Tamil Nadu.
It was not until 1993 that the central government passed the, Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The Act defined a “manual scavenger” as “a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta.” It made the employment of manual scavengers a criminal offense. It is important to note that in the years after the passing of the Act, no one was charged with employing “manual scavengers”, and yet the 2011 census showed that 740,078 Indian homes still depended on the manual scavengers for cleaning their toilets. The Act, thus, failed in its objective of prohibiting an inhuman and abhorrent practice.
Consecutive attempts failed, and 10 years later the central government came up with the, Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It defined a manual scavenger as “a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government of a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed…”
Notice the problem here? The government only makes note of latrine cleaners, railway cleaners, sewer cleaners, and excreta sludge handlers. The definition makes no note of gender, location of employment, and the number of scavengers employed. It makes no mention of domestic workers who clean their employers’ toilets. In fact, ironically, the government in general, and the Indian Railways in particular, continues to be the largest employers of manual scavengers.
A year later, on October 2, 2014, from the Rajghat parapets, the Prime Minister of India launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a national campaign by the Government of India, to clean the streets, roads, and infrastructure of the country.
This is India’s biggest ever cleanliness drive and 3 million government employees and students participated in it. The Prime Minister nominated nine famous personalities for the campaign, and they took up the challenge and nominated nine more people and was carried forward in this form.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan entailed the construction of individual sanitary latrines for households below the poverty line with 80% subsidy. There was also a decision to convert dry latrines into low-cost sanitary latrines and construct exclusive village sanitary complexes for women providing facilities for hand pumping, bathing, sanitation, and washing, on a selective basis, where there isn’t enough land or space within houses and where village panchayats are willing to maintain the facilities. The campaign also encompasses setting up of sanitary marts. It envisioned total sanitation of villages through the construction of drains, soakage pits, and solid and liquid waste disposal. The Abhiyan, pioneered by Narendra Modi, aimed to show that even though India is a developing country, a nuclear power, and one of fastest growing economies of the world, one issue should be priority—cleanliness.
This year, four years after the campaign launched, the Prime Minister has launched the ‘Swachhata Hi Seva Movement’ from September 15, 2018, to mark the 150th birth anniversary of (and paying tribute to) Mahatma Gandhi. The prime minister termed the mission as a “historic mass movement aimed at fulfilling Bapu’s dream of a clean India.”
But are these measures enough? Has the ground situation changed?
On September 30, 2018, The Hindu reported, that even after five years of declaring manual scavenging illegal, and four years since the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one incident summed up the the ground reality exposed the lies: in an open defecation free village, a community was forced to clean faeces for rotis.
The government in its official reply by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment admitted that over 300 deaths due to manual scavenging have been reported in the country in 2017 alone. Barely any manual scavenger crosses the age of 60.
Interestingly, since 2014 the budgetary allocation for the “Self Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers” has been reduced by 98%. In a country where crores are spent on statues and campaigns we know how serious the government is towards manual scavengers.
Supreme Court orders like compulsory standing at the time of national anthem are respected and put into act at the drop of a hat but no ears when it comes to enforcement of orders prohibiting manual scavenging & protecting those endangered by it.
We know what our priorities are! https://t.co/4wh0dqiJsz
— Sanobar (@SanobarFatma) September 9, 2018
As India modernises, its caste system remains wedded to its existence and transcends religion. Along with vigorous legal enforcement of the law we also need to change India’s mindset towards filth so that communities are not oppressed and social inequalities removed.
Manual Scavenging remains banned only on paper. An inhuman practice that has led to the death of thousands, and from which thousands more suffer from harmful health effects including asphyxiation and exposure to disease from handling of human excreta, cannot be glorified and called “a spiritual exercise“. An emerging superpower cannot persist with the shame of millions of humans cleaning excreta with their bare hands, for it is but a blot on us and our otherwise glorious culture.