Manual Scavenging refers to the inhumane practice of cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. The term is almost always used in the Indian context because it’s a practice that has been in place for some time now. It is so common in the country, especially in tier II cities or lower, that one can hardly tell if it’s abolished!
Manual scavenging has been abolished in India, and The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, made employing a manual scavenger a cognizable offense with imprisonment and fine. Even though manual scavenging resonates with issues like casteism, since most people engaging in it belong to the SC communities, it never became a hot political issue. The numbers are grossly underestimated and the grievance redressal mechanism is wrapped in red tape. Well, this completes the loop of misfortune for the poor folks, who are then left with no option but to go back to where they were promised to be saved from.
Why is even a single worker allowed to go into a manhole and risk it all? The answers are straight and simple. Firstly, India needs to set its scientific priorities straight. Even a layman would choose sewage cleaning technology over a space expedition to any planet. The government’s expenditure is also haywire. Recently, millions were spent on construction of an extremely tall statue of Sardar Vallabhai Patel. I’m pretty sure the Iron Man of India won’t be happy to see this money being snatched from poor people who are being forced to clean dry toilets and sewers with the most primitive tools.
Bezwada Wilson, a winner of the Magsaysay Award and head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, told the Times of India recently, that over 200 workers died in drains in 2017 and 2018. “We must mechanise sewage cleaning. Our sewer systems vary from one city to another. Some are over 150 years old.”
The technology and machinery for the purpose have been in place for years, with moderate costs that make them affordable by most governments. However, when the political will is lacking, there is only so much that can be done. The talks of mechanisation of sewage cleaning and random startups with fancy names came up in the past months because this harmful practice claimed another set of innocent lives.
Secondly, the red-tapism inherent in grievance redressal mechanisms and ignorance of the government results in almost every disadvantaged person to be excluded from beneficial schemes. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, made the states responsible for identifying and rehabilitating manual scavengers by providing them training, giving assistance, loans and even houses. It is the responsibility of the chief executive officer of the panchayat or the municipal corporation to find the manual scavengers in the locality and give them identity cards and benefits as mentioned under the law after mandatory verification.
So far, only 13 states have been able to identify 12,742 manual scavengers. This comes to around 7% of the 2011 social economic census figure. There are 22 states where not a single person has self-declared to be a manual scavenger, according to data, from the ministry of social justice and empowerment. State governments allegedly indulge in trampling data in order to avoid charges under contempt of court.
Last, but not least, is the hypocrisy of the government evident from the policies like Swachha Bharat Abhiyan. Dry latrines are primitive forms of toilets which require the excreta to be disposed of manually. Their existence is linked to manual scavenging in that area. It is the responsibility of the local authority to identify dry latrines in the area and demolish and convert them into sanitary latrines, as per the 2013 Act.
However, when the government declared that it had spent crores in constructing new toilets, not even a miniscule amount was spared to convert the dry toilets into sanitary ones. Yet, again too much is left for States to decide and matters are allowed to go sideways. Hypocrisy also exists in the empty rhetoric of being pro SC/ST. The truth is manual scavenging is never seen as discriminatory caste practice. The people subjected to this inhumane practice are indeed the ones belonging to the lowest of the ‘lowest ranks’ in society. Even the more politically active groups belonging to SC/ST communities seem to ignore their plight.
The plight of these helpless people is not new, but one that’s rarely noticed. This year in January, a poor worker was killed cleaning a drain in Delhi because the contractor had not provided him with safety gear. The workers had to clean out the muck with their bare hands. After one of them died, the police registered a case of manslaughter against the contractor.
In March itself, a daily-wage worker died when he slipped into a manhole when he was asked by authorities of a school to clean out the drain without being provided with any safety equipment. It is shocking indeed that it happened in a school that is supposed to teach children about such practices as social evils and that they must be discouraged at all times.
Here, we suddenly have all the media giving opinions about the situation, because recently a fresh set of lives was claimed by this age-old primitive and backward practice of manual scavenging. I do not know what it will take for those in power to realise that it is the desperation of the poor and the ignorance of the accountable that feed this practice.
In the end, we can conclude by saying that the reason why robots managed to remain absent while red-tapism and hypocrisy prevailed is that the society couldn’t care less and the government could never bother to be politically invested in the cause of underrepresented and disadvantaged.