Every morning we flush our shit down the toilet, but sanitation still remains a problem for many in this nation. An inter-ministerial task force counted a total of 53,236 manual scavengers in just 121 out of 600 districts in the country. This despite the employment of manual scavengers being prohibited since 1993. Uttar Pradesh has the most number of manual scavengers registered while Maharashtra follows up in second place.
Manual scavenging is a socio-economic problem that plagues the structure of a liberal society. Imagine the plight of such a citizen who has to earn her/his labour by indulging in a job that is outlawed for 15 years and of such demeaning nature. Almost none of the recommended safety equipment is provided to the people who do this job daily to earn a bare minimum income. Their jobs include continuous exposure to gases like methane, leptospirosis, hepatitis, respiratory problems and other critical health hazards. Manual scavengers are subjected to social atrocities and almost all the scavengers are from Dalit communities.
While men are most likely to be found working on railway tracks where wages are higher, women clean open pits in houses. About 95% of the manual scavengers are women, and a large number of them are unregistered. Often they do not have fixed wages and get paid in food items or grains. Clogged latrines built inside the houses are generally made to be cleaned by women as families often prefer allowing women inside their homes than men.
Often these women leave their home and visit each house scraping off human excreta with their bare hands, at times, collect it in cane baskets and carry it on their heads to finally unload it in a dumpster that is usually located near their own settlements. Most scavengers, who belong to the Valmiki caste, live in settlements that are close to the dumping ground. In many cases, when men in the house lose their lives in similar jobs, these women are left as the sole earners of the household and have to take up multiple jobs after picking up excreta too. Getting these jobs is hard because of the Brahminical nature of our society which has clogged our mindsets with caste divide. Often, even if a manual scavenger gives up scavenging, it is hard for them to find another job as no one is usually interested in employing someone “dirty”.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 declares employment of an individual as a manual scavenger a punishable offence. Later in 2013, the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act ensured their skill development and a compulsory monetary compensation of Rs 10 Lakh to the families of those who died while on the job as manual scavengers. The burden of enactment of the law falls upon the state government but for satisfactory implementation, it is required that honest survey techniques are put into use and real numbers are obtained. However, the most recent survey conducted by the union government task force shows a four-fold increase and this is when scavenging of septic tanks, sewers and railway tracks are not taken into account.
Further, the efforts made by the governments are proving to be counter-productive in curbing this inhumane practice. The large number of toilets built under Swachh Bharat Mission has a small pit which leads to people employing manual scavengers for cleaning. Railways are yet to get rid of manual scavenging completely. Women in these jobs are subjected to caste and gender-based discrimination. The compulsory monetary compensation has been provided to just 100 families out of a total of more than 600 deaths reported, as per the official records. It is estimated that the real number of deaths is much higher.
Checks on rehabilitation and skill development centres of manual scavengers are not sufficient to bring a substantial change towards uprooting this evil. The public itself needs to be held responsible for its own shit. Disposing of used condoms, sanitary pads, toilet papers often lead to a situation that demand scavenging of excreta. Directives issued from the top of the chain will not be effective unless and until district and sub-district administration is held responsible to maintain the development of proper sewage system in each new settlement that takes place in the area.
Toilets build under SBM should be built on the twin pit model, where one pit in use and the other composting the collected human waste for a safe period of one to one and half years, rather than just a structure for government advertisement. Alternative jobs for manual scavengers especially women should be innovated and provided. Technical innovation is being done that will also help in dealing with manual scavenging. But the most important thing that we must deal with is the deep-rooted casteism in our minds that clogs our vision and forces the people of a specific caste to pick up a job that is so, for lack of a better word, inhumane. It is a failure for all of us as a society if we can’t manage to uplift the people, especially women who have spent ages cleaning our shit so that we get to keep our hands clean.