Since 1993, Not One Person Has Been Held Accountable For What Is India’s Shameful Legacy

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.

“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.

Image Source: REUTERS/Parth Sanya.

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 worker cleans a basin in a passenger train coach at a railway station in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad October 2, 2014. On Thursday, a holiday for Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, to modernise sanitation within five years. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA – Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY POLITICS) – RTR48NKH

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.

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.

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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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