India, a country with a population of 1.4 billion has over 1.3 million people working as manual scavengers. We have reached the moon, and back and yet five manual scavengers die every day in our country. Manual scavenging continues to be a stinking legacy of suffocation and stigma. For some, it is the most nauseating thing to do while for some it is the only way to make a living.
From drains and sewers to septic tanks and railway tracks, millions of manual scavengers are cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta. Google defines manual scavenging as an ‘inhumane occupation ’ and let me not question the web!
Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation which involves an unbreakable hierarchy system where manual scavenging is actually considered as a ‘privilege’ that can only be honored by the Dalits! Yes, you heard that right. Not every Dalit is a sanitation worker but every sanitation worker is a Dalit in our country. While researching and meeting various manual scavengers in New Delhi, I remember meeting Rakesh who constantly emphasized the statement ‘Hamari jaatike logo ka yahi kaam hota hai’ hai and ‘hamare bacche bhi yahi karenge. ’ These words somehow froze me and I was astonished seeing the kind of belief these scavengers have accepted where cleaning anybody’s shit seem like their fate and destiny to them? Who is actually responsible for that?
While Article 15 of the Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, place of birth or caste and Article 17 abolishes untouchability and it’s practice in any form. Nevertheless, the Dalits remain to be the highest employees of this inhumane occupation. Haven’t the laws and talks about equality been just restricted to constitutions and newspapers? Just imagine when your car crosses a nearby drain, how the smell forces us to immediately shut our car windows and now magnify that smell into a 1000 times and that’s the working environment of a manual scavenger every day. Does a manual scavenger have a high tolerating superpower for smell or his body is made of iron that can survive any kind of filthy state? Is every child born in the manual scavenging community born with the denial of his basic rights and the purpose of his life is to clean our shit when he grows up? Is this not modern day slavery?
Apart from the segregation of this community from the rest of the society, there are various divisions within the community broadly as the private scavengers and scavengers working with the government. The government claims to have assisted 91% of India’s manual scavengers without counting 93% of them because of their involvement with the private sector. The scavengers especially the ones involved in the private sector are denied with any form of safety and most of them end up losing their lives while undertaking this hazardous work. Are the sacrifices of these soldiers lesser than those at the border? Well, who can be held responsible for this? While the manual scavenging Acts of 1993 and 2013 of the Indian constitution have officially banned this practice yet Indian Railways continue to be the largest employer of manual scavengers.
Manual Scavengers are not just the men who clean the manholes and the potholes, 90% of the manual scavengers are women who clean dry latrines by hand and carry them on their head. Yes! We have achieved independence a long time back and I am talking about the existence of this practice in 2018 as we read this article. Some of the women I am closely working within villages are not allowed to enter the same temple or mosque or use water from the same well and their kids are not allowed to sit in the same classrooms. Before meeting these women I could have never thought the existence of such practices even today. Listening to the story of Tasleem ( a closely worked manual scavenger) , I felt like a 10-year-old child who had definitely studied about untouchability in her history book but has never thought of its existence in the real world. My research on this community was an eye-opener to the world we live in, where at one place we are planning bullet trains while simultaneously manual scavengers like Tasleem and Rakesh exists for whom their respective lives are limited to cleaning our shit and at times ending up losing their lives.
The battle is huge and the time to act is definitely now. I did not want to keep my research as an add-on to my knowledge but wanted to make an impact or at least try to do ‘something’. The wanting to make a difference motivated me to establish Project ‘Rehmat’ with the aim to solve the major problem of this community – Safety to the existing manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. Working closely with Mr. Bezwada Wilson, founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan helped me to understand the community better.
Again, the fight is ‘to save lives and bring equality ’, larger participation by you and me and more serious approach by the government shall help us to achieve the bigger picture. Hence it’s important to make at least this dialogue stronger, the conversations important and the awareness wider.