How do we define a social issue or how does any issue get associated with a social tag? There are many parameters which seek to explicate and contextualize the social frame of reference. For example,
At first, let us look at few incidences which happened in the last few months and which will help in analyzing this issue:-
All the above-mentioned parameters and examples lead to a conclusion that manual scavenging is a sort of value judgement, a sense of feeling that a prevailing condition is detrimental and requires change. And the proclivity for a change is realized by all institutional organs of the human society whether it is Legislative (passing the 2013 Act), Executive (accepting the hard truth), Judicial organs (showing deep concerns over the issue) or International organizations (e.g. WHO study) or general public (NGOs).
Let us talk about a unique incident that took place last year. Five sanitation workers were chosen to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He washed the feet of the workers, using water and his hands. Keeping apart the political debate of whether it was an empty symbolism or a genuine effort, let us consider the conclusions which could be inferred from this incident:-
All the above inferences will make sense only when we will ensure that these “Karma Yogis” come from different strata of the society, rather than being confined to the members of Dalit caste (along with the role of technology which we will see later on).
The problem which seems to be simply economic in nature like lack of education, poverty etc. has various interlinked components which keep generations of manual scavengers in the same profession. This stigma often culminates in inter-generational discrimination resulting in a sort of mental slavery, where future generations struggle to break free from the vicious cycle, with limited (rather socially restricted) opportunities beyond the sanitary work. Let us consider those inter-linked components.
Many people see the job of manual scavenging just from the lens of occupation and are ignorant about the socio-cultural strings attached to it. For them, it’s all about poverty or lack of education which drives manual scavengers into this menial job. However, cleanliness has more to do with cultural notions of purity and impurity than with poverty.
Deeply entrenched feudal attitudes in the Indian psyche and caste-based social hierarchy ensures their confinement to sustenance options (such as sweeping, cleaning and sanitation work) perceived as disgraceful or too degrading by upper echelons of society.
As long as these cultural notions conquer the societal discourse, the stigma attached to this occupation will continue. They believe that all the sufferings, associated with this job, are in accordance and commensurate with what they have done in the previous birth and results of their present endeavour will manifest in a future birth (संसार के प्रत्येक प्राणी को अपने कर्मों का फल भोगना ही पड़ता है).
Thus, they believe that cleaning is their obligation (karma), determined by their caste status and because of this attitude, they are ready to do the dirtiest work. In this way, the caste system ensures that the contribution of manual scavengers remains unrecognized, ultimately leading to the institutionalization of this menial work.
Alcoholism can be interpreted in two contexts, with varying degree of socio-cultural, economic and psychological factors. The first one is the prescribed social pattern where drinking is integrated into the culture of the society (mostly western countries) and people don’t find any psychological potential in it. In the second context (for example, India), alcohol use is perceived as disruptive to culture and society and is viewed as a means of seeking pleasure and escape.
As far as pleasure is concerned, for some people, it serves a purpose for a great conversation and fabulous memories of a wonderful evening. For them, drinking alcohol is always fun and perhaps a part of the good life (proliferation of night clubs is testimony to this). And regarding the “escape”, it serves as an escape route from a high level of anxiety in interpersonal/professional relationships, low frustration tolerance, feeling of isolation or guilt etc; thus, suppressing the emotional pain.
In such circumstances, the song “mujhe pine ka shauk nahi, pita hoon ghum bhulaane ko” (I don’t enjoy drinking, I simply drink to drown my sorrows) fits perfectly. However, there is one category of people in India for whom drinking alcohol is not associated with “gam bhulane ko”, rather with “gandh mitane ko”(to remove the odour). And that category is manual scavengers.
Most often, they drink alcohol on an empty stomach to numb their senses while cleaning human waste. The nature of work, the place of work and the lack of basic amenities (like potable water, toilet etc) at the workplace (irregular work schedules) affect them physically and psychologically and alcoholism is a way of coping with the situation.
All this make them impuissant against communicable and non-communicable diseases like virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections (affecting their skin, eyes, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems), TB, cancer, etc.
In a market economic setup, a decision to join the family business is prompted by the capability to influence the vision of the business and the disposition towards using this capability to aspire for remarkable objectives/results. However, in the case of manual scavenging, it is absolutely a social set up where subsistence economy comes into play, not the market economy.
Here, abject family poverty puts the screws on the children of manual scavengers to go with the option of school drop-out and enter the family profession, setting in motion a never-ending vicious cycle. Illiteracy, along with addiction and health problems, causes a high rate of absenteeism at work, which means less salary. To meet familial and social commitments and to smoothen consumption in the face of adverse income shocks, manual scavengers take recourse to debt from informal sources (moneylenders, family and friends).
Although the conditions for such loans are flexible and often no collateral is required, it is characterized by a high rate of interest, and no real hope of clearing the principal amount. We often come across news of loan waiver schemes launched by State and Union Governments. Without going into the impact and implications of such loan waiver schemes, what we definitely know is that such schemes are restricted to farmers only and is not extended to other marginalized sections like manual scavengers (no singular recourse towards extricating them from their indebtedness). Perhaps the numbers matter!
As I said earlier, the flawed, yet entrenched and prevailing thinking is that doing manual scavenging is a religious duty and a spiritual exercise that promises “better life in the next birth”. It gives a sort of sanctity to the inherited occupation.
People who are not familiar to the intricacies of India’s social system believe that they have not been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood, rather to perform their religious duty/spiritual exercise to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods.
Directly or indirectly, they are impelled to believe and accept that it is their hereditary work/duty to clean human shit, and they must pursue it as an internal spiritual activity.
Pursuance of the job of cleaning human shit as an internal spiritual activity helps in maintaining the societal status quo, further subjugating them.
Despite the Act banning anyone from employing people to clean sewers, manual scavenging is perpetuated due to lack of awareness and enforcement procedures, along with the lack of implementation of the law. There have been no reports from any state/Union Territory regarding conviction under the 2013 Act.
Perhaps it would be too ingenuous to anticipate that the helpless scavengers would themselves give up this dehumanising means of survival.
To tackle this issue, which has an entrenched caste element into it, there must be the existence of political willingness. There is no secret that political will in India is often enlightened by electoral logic.
And in this context, the macroscopic (nanoscopic as per surveys!) section of scavengers being despairingly shattered, literally claustrophobic at every locality and uncoupled from mainstream societal milieu is quite insignificant from the point of view of electoral statistics.
Thus, manual scavenging is a problem where all streams of human study like Sociology Political Science, Economics etc converge. Now, let’s look at the role of Science/Technology. Can technology be a solution to this socio-economic menace? This question assumes a great significance, especially in the light of a debilitated waste disposal structure. And the answer (although not the perfect) is “yes”. For example, robots like “Bandicoot” (designed by engineers from Kerala) can go inside the manhole, imitating all the actions of a human scavenger.
We need to make sure that mechanised scavenging machines are accessible to those who are in need of them to unblock the clogged sewerage networks (including inside private spaces). The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is significant from two perspectives and let us see whether the technology which we are talking about can play a role in effectuating the same or not:
The government must take a proactive approach while dealing with this menace. Local officials associated with administration, police, municipality etc must be trained regarding better understanding and implementation of the law.
The state must ensure that individuals and organisations implement the law in true letter and spirit (for example, employ manual scavengers without safety gear) and violators are strictly punished. And for this to happen, we must have a complete picture of their numbers.
Though several surveys on manual scavenging have been conducted, several anomalies have been found, including allegations of not divulging the real figures and data manipulation. It is also illustrated by the large disparity between the reported number of manual scavengers and functional service toilets (from which human excreta is manually collected).
This sort of data variance gives rise to exclusion errors which are socioeconomically and morally a troublesome escape clause as far as the process identification of manual scavengers and outlining rehabilitation programmes is concerned. Apart from conducting surveys to identify the missed out manual scavengers, the perspective of beneficiaries on the results and on the outcome of the intervention should also be strengthened.
It can be done by the use of a survey-based assessment tool and involving local communities as well as civil society organisations working with the community. While it is very much appreciable to tag manual scavengers with prefixes like “waste warriors” or “cleanliness ambassadors”, we can’t humanize their lives unless we don’t get into a complete coverage mode.
The one fact that clearly emerges out from humanity’s fight against Covid-19 is that “vulnerability index” is on the higher side for elderly people, people from the economically weak section, newborn children, and those suffering from terminal illnesses. Being involved in manual management of faecal sludge from insanitary latrines in a hazardous environment (aggravated by the inadequate safety measures), manual scavengers are one of the most exposed among economically weaker sections to Covid-19. With millions of job losses and lack of new jobs, many of them who were striving to run away from this dehumanizing practice will be forced to get back to the same.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into the spotlight the contribution of the medical fraternity to the extent it was not recognized. I hope the same crisis will bring the same fortune for our frontline warriors or foot soldiers that collect the waste we generate.
The most certain fact regarding waste management in India is that it counts heavily on the most oppressed castes – the Dalits who society still adjudges as the licensed performers (as per social norms) of this task. This visible presence of caste system in waste disposal also has a vicious gendered gradient tilt.
Hence, any attempt to integrate social norms into the sanitation policy should incorporate this angle too. After Swachh Bharat Mission has made a great contribution in making a large part of India “Open Defecation Free”, now it’s time to shift gear towards “Waste Free India”. Only then we can assure a humanized existence of manual scavengers in our society.
As I said, we are regularly confronted with the news of doctors and other healthcare workers being felicitated as corona warriors by all the sections of the society and institutions. With hygiene being the key to success against this pandemic, can we expect that the manual scavengers will be extended the same felicitation as they are also standing as a wall between the infection and our society (not only through this pandemic time, rather for centuries)?
This will happen only when the services provided by them are acknowledged. As of now, irrespective of the probability of getting infected by corona, they are definitely infected by the indifference of an unjust society. Apart from preventing corona “virus transmission” among manual scavengers, we must also be concerned about the inter-generational “caste transmission”.