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If Manual Scavenging Is Just An ‘Occupation’, Why Does It Exclusively Employ Dalits?

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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:

  • When a problem confronts many individuals within a society and which can be handled only collectively
  • When a problem reflects society’s perception of people’s personal lives. Many times, people show an attitude of unconcern or perceive it in terms of misfortunes and past karma (e.g. caste system, untouchability, etc).
  • Many times, issues which are supposed to be economic in nature in the eyes of common public, also have a social connotation. One such social problem (rather socio-economic) is “Manual Scavenging”. In this article, we will analyze this issue from all these perspectives.
Why do Dalits do manual scavenging? Image: Protest against Manual Scavenging/ Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At first, let us look at few incidences which happened in the last few months and which will help in analyzing this issue:-

  1. According to a recent WHO study “Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: an Initial Assessment”, the financial situation of sanitary workers in India is ”precarious” and it is a job linked to “a caste-based structure”. (Given the fact that more than 90% of latrine cleaners are women, and almost all sanitation workers are Dalits).
  2. Last year, the Supreme Court expressed serious concerns over people dying during manual scavenging which the Court saw as analogous to “gas chambers”.
  3. According to the government estimates, the number of manual scavengers lies somewhere between 14,000 and 31,000; while Safai Karmacharis Andolan pegs the figure closer to 770,000, with nearly 1,800 sewer cleaners asphyxiating to death in the last decade.
  4. The number of people who lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country increased by almost 62% from 68 in 2018 to 110 in 2019, according to a reply given by the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry to the Lok Sabha.
  5. An Overwhelming Number Of Manual Scavengers Are Dalits. So

Why Do Only Dalits Do Manual Scavenging?

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).

Narendra Modi washes feet of sanitary workers
Narendra Modi washing feet of sanitary workers/Photo: Scroll

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:-

  • It was supposed to be a gesture intended to honour people who clean toilets, terming them as real karma yogis.
  • It was emphatically a radical public assertion when the PM sat face to face with sanitation workers, at a lower level. Self-respect was being offered to the discriminated and the disempowered and was a gesture of great humility and acknowledgement of human worth.
  • Among them were two women, signifying equal respect to women, especially in a patriarchal society like ours.

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.

Caste, Cleanliness And Culture: The 3 Cs That Regulate Scavenging

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: A Coping Mechanism, Not An Addiction

Manual Scavengers drink alcohol to cope.
Most often, they drink alcohol on an empty stomach to numb their senses while cleaning human waste.

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.

Abject Poverty That Leads To Indebtedness

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!

Myths, Religion And Social Structures Play An Important Role In Its Inter-Generational Nature

Religion propagates their inter-generational nature/Manual Scavengers
Religion propagates the inter-generational nature of manual scavengers.

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.

The Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

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:

  1. The 2013 Act has the provision of rehabilitating them so that they can live a life of dignity: Does cleaning the sewers with the help of a machine provides them with a ‘life of dignity’? If we think that manual scavengers are faced only with the toxic gases like methane and ammonia resulting in a state of asphyxiation and bacterial infections, then technology is the perfect answer to this menace. However, that is not the case. Along with the toxic gases, comes the toxicity of the society in the form of denial of basic human rights exemplified by the humiliation and insult they face on a daily basis. We cannot dismantle the pious connection between caste and occupation if descendants of manual scavengers continue the same work in a different form with the help of a technical set up. Hence, apart from technical inputs, we also need the insights of rights and justice and here the second perspective assumes great significance.
  2. It talks about correcting the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers:  As per Ambedkar, the caste system is not simply a division of labour, but also a division of labourers into impregnable job modules (for example, caste-designated occupation of manual scavenging customarily relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy). Hence, to pull the plug on the vicious cycle of marginalisation and exclusion, we need to rehabilitate manual scavengers in non-sanitation related occupations. Providing machines to the same caste to do the same work will surely help in detaching the prefix “manual”, but it will end up reinforcing the hidden caste factor and thus, instead of moving forward, we will go backward, thus continuing historical injustice.
Hyderabad Installed Machines To Eliminate Manual Scavenging
Photo: NDTV/ Hyderabad installed machines to eliminate manual scavenging.

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.

As We Fight The ‘Virus Transmission’, Let’s Also Fight This Inter-Generational ‘Caste Transmission’

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.

Impact of covid on manual scavengers
Photo: People’s Archive of Rural India

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”.

Featured image is for representational use only/ Protest against Manual Scavenging/ Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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