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.
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.
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.