The government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched a massive sanitation campaign titled “Swacchh Bharat Abhiyaan” in the year 2014, aimed at improving sanitation and making India open-defecation free. Now that he has been elected for the second time, concerns remain on the plight of manual scavengers in India. It is estimated that deaths in sewers and manholes are claiming more lives in India than even terrorism.
Now, what is this practice of manual scavenging? How many people really understand the plight of a manual scavenger? Do we really care what happens to our shit, where does it travel and who cleans the clogged sewers and manholes as a result of our natural call? Solid and semi-solid sludge of human waste often clogs sewers, in such a situation, a manual scavenger is called for. We give respect to our soldiers who battle with the terrorists at the border or elsewhere, but what about the manual scavengers who clean our filth and still face official apathy? Traditionally, manual scavenging refers to the practice of removing human excreta with hands with the help of a broom and tin scraper at best.
In January 2018, it was reported by Times of India, a leading English newspaper, that four men died after they entered a sewage duct in Powai, Mumbai. These men went inside without any safety equipment. Very recently, on June 15, 2019, it was reported that seven sanitation workers lost their lives due to inhalation of toxic fumes while cleaning a sewer in Vadodara district of Gujarat.
During his election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi skirted the issue of deaths in manholes of India, but as of now, no concrete solution has been offered by the new government on how it intends to curb the menace of manual scavenging. Though in order to appease the servicing mass of manual scavengers, Mr Modi went to the length of washing the feet of safai karamcharis (cleanliness workers), thus turning his election campaign almost into a sort of spectacle. A political act surely, but such acts offer no solace to individuals stuck in an ignoble occupation which is ultimately mired deep into an abyss of caste discrimination.
The focus should be on weaning them permanently out of the vicious cycle of systemic ostracism. A UN (United Nations) report on manual scavenging has pointed out that according to the India Census 2011, more than 2.6 million dry latrines are functional in the country. There are 13, 14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains, and 7, 94,390 dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually.
Manual scavengers court death almost on a daily basis in the manholes of India. We need to ask ourselves, how many us can actually relate to the predicament of a manual scavenger? Unless we do not step into the shoes of a manual scavenger, we as citizens of India will not be able to wean manual scavengers out of the hell-holes and accord them a life of dignity and respect. Imagine, going down into a sewer without wearing a helmet, without any safety gear and negotiating with muck, sludge and human waste matter lying inside the drain. And you have to do this being surrounded by obnoxious fumes. If you are lucky, you might come out alive from the hell-hole.
Well, the truth is, for manual scavengers of India, this might be just another day at work. Often, we listen to voices saying, “Give them safety gear. Give them proper equipment.” One wonders if our approach to counter this social malaise is correctly positioned at all. We are happy to live in a state of denial.
The SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), i.e. the official protocol for sewer cleaning provided by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Govt. of India in November 2018, in a tabular format, lists out the various safety equipment like safety helmets, full body wader suit, breathing apparatus and other scientific paraphernalia to be provided for anyone who cleans the sewer. But when manhole deaths are reported, we discover that these scavengers had actually gone down into the manhole only in their bare essentials. The effort should be made to completely switch over to a system of entirely mechanized cleaning of sewers in a phased manner and to give alternative job opportunities to scavengers.
Manual scavengers risk death almost on a daily basis and the existing legal system gives them empty hope and despair. The shocking aspect of the whole malaise is that the government conveniently opts to ignore the rehabilitation of scavengers into mainstream life. Manual scavengers, in most cases, lead a life of fear and trauma. Manual scavengers of India are waging a lonely battle against this modern-day form of slavery. They are caught in a legal labyrinth where it seems that without a terrific social reform movement, they would continue to suffer and die lonely and undignified deaths.
The Parliament of India passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013; a progressive piece of legislation to rehabilitate them. Sadly, the implementation of the law which directs the government to wean out individuals employed in this abominable profession remains deplorable. Bezwada Wilson, social activist and a Magsaysay award winner, leads Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social reform movement against this malaise of manual scavenging. He has repeatedly observed that successive governments have not taken the cause of manual scavengers seriously. He incessantly questions official apathy by citing evidence in the Supreme Court of India attesting to the reality on the ground.
The blunt fact is that manual scavengers work for a pittance in India. They are compelled by archaic societal norms to continue in the profession. They are fighting losing battles in the manholes and streets of India. In an age when the world has greatly travelled past the horrors of apartheid and religious bigotry, manual scavengers cry for redemption and freedom from the modern-day slavery of their occupation. They dream of breathing in an air filled with the fragrance of independence and self-reliance one day. But the question is: is India ready to give them a warm embrace of dignity and respect? Only time will tell.