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We Can’t Get Rid Of Manual Scavenging Without Uprooting Our Casteist Beliefs

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The Union Government is set to introduce an Amendment Bill this Monsoon Session in the Parliament aiming to take stringent measures to eliminate manual scavenging in India. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill 2020, has come under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to make the existing laws stricter for the complete emancipation of manual scavenging.

Manual scavenging, though in itself quite an umbrella term, broadly refers to the handling of (in any manner) raw human excrement from dry latrines and sewers. It is an umbrella term in the sense that it imagines the entire sanitation workforce as amorphous, which in itself is unsettling. Manual scavenging varies from faecal sludge handlers, drain sanitation workers, treatment plant workers, railway sanitation workers to even domestic workers, school sanitation workers, community and public toilet cleaners and even persons handling garbage who come in contact with human excrement and other dangerous wastes.

Caste and patriarchy are at the centre of this vulgarity. Currently, out of the 1.2 million manual scavengers, all of them are Dalits or Adivasis, and around 95–98% of them are women. Image only for representational purposes only. Via Flickr/Nate Lepp

In the 21st century, where we like to believe that caste no longer dictates occupation, this particular heinous practice is exclusively reserved for the Dalits, especially the lowest among Dalits. This extremely inhuman practice of handling raw human excreta is completely thrust on the Bhangis, Valmikis, Panchams and Mehtars in the northern and western India, Bassfor, Dom, Ghaasi in eastern India and Arundhatiyars, Chakkaliyars, Thoti, Madiga Paraiyars and Pallars in the south.

Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993. However, even after twenty-seven years of its enactment, the conviction rate is at an absolute zero. This law was later amended in 2013, broadening the definition of a manual scavenger, but it continued with no conviction rates due to willful state apathy.

The proposed Bill seeks for complete mechanization of sewer and septic tank cleansing, provide better protection at work and compensation in case of accidents. The entire focus of the Bill is on technology with no reference to the plight and demands of the scavengers. The most dangerous aspect of this Bill, however, is that it states that there will be Sewer Entry Professionals as part of a Sanitation Response Unit in cases of emergency—who may preferably be selected from “traditionally employed sanitation worker”.

The usage of the term “traditionally employed” puts the clear onus on the Dalits to enter sewer lines. Hence, the passed Bill will only give legitimacy and constitutional validity to reinforce caste and accentuate its viciousness.

Thus, what the law is not addressing is the core issue that is keeping this practice alive in all its flesh and bone for millennia, that is, caste. Manual scavenging cannot be just reduced to a sanitation issue because, in most places, it is not because of the necessity of cleanliness but more so because it involves Dalits and Adivasis.

Caste and patriarchy are at the centre of this vulgarity. Currently, out of the 1.2 million manual scavengers, all of them are Dalits or Adivasis, and around 95–98% of them are women. Most of them are threatened and compelled to do this, especially in rural areas where legislation and constitutional rights are light years away from Dalits and Adivasis.

We often hear and conveniently ignore the significant number of deaths in sewer lines, to which mechanization is definitely the only solution. But what we do not hear is how a manual scavenger dies a hundred deaths in life, socially and culturally as a consequence of our delusional notions of cleanliness.

Along with the willful state ineptitude, what’s most problematic is our silence and acceptance of this casteist criminal offence. If only an iota of the awareness and concern that our society had for protective gears for the “Covid warriors” was also given to protection gears for the Dalits who enter horrendous septic tanks and sewer lines.

The sewer lines emit methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide and ammonia, which reduces the oxygen levels and causes hypoxia to the worker. Sometimes they even get drowned in the sudden gush of sewerage water. In some cases, they do not even get the dignity of an ambulance; their body is taken in the vehicle that is brought by the worker to take the waste.

Apart from the horrors of the working conditions of sewer workers, sanitation workers in the form of domestic helpers, community toilet cleaners, etc., are also exposed to hazardous kinds of waste that takes a heavy toll on their lives. Most of them do not even make it after 40 years. Our waste that they are forced to come in contact with carries Hepatitis A, Norovirus and also pinworms, which cause life-threatening diseases like cholera, meningitis, typhoid and cardiovascular problems along with respiratory and skin diseases, carbon monoxide poisoning, anaemia.

The worst kinds of wastes are improper disposal of sanitary napkins, diapers and condoms, which emit terrible stench and clog the drains. Thus, there is a lot that can be done in our individual capacities. The neo-liberal campaigns today on menstrual taboos must go beyond menstrual hygiene, pads and talk about their disposal. We must take responsibility in disposing of every waste, especially biological wastes properly and safely.

Unfortunately, the moment a child is born into this community, the most inalienable fundamental human right—the right to a dignified life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution—is shattered and butchered. Therefore, the basis of restoring their rights must be rightfully placed in respect, dignity and most importantly, humanism.

Featured image via Flickr
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
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