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Why Does Manual Scavenging Exist In India Despite Being Outlawed?

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“Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a very open and common aphorism, taught since childhood. But why is this practice of godliness confined to one particular community, namely the Dalits? To be more precise, the lowest among the social hierarchy in India?

Manual scavenging, the practice of carrying raw human excreta with bare hands, is often perceived as a practice that took place in the past or something that happens in rural India. Unfortunately, manual scavenging is a dehumanising and humiliating daily reality in India taking place not only in rural areas but also in mega cities like Delhi.

This appalling practice is exclusively reserved for the Dalits, the ones placed at the lowest in the social ladder of India. According to recent updates, a central government task force has so far counted 54,130 manual scavengers in India, which is a four-fold increase from the official statistics of 2019.

Mr Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and the National Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan.

The immediate reason that comes to our mind when we talk about the very existence and engagement of manual scavengers is poverty. However, Mr Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and the National Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan reiterates that “Poverty has nothing to do with Manual Scavenging, but the only Casteism”. It is important to understand that this is what that makes this practice a vicious cycle – “caste identity”.

Caste may not seem as dictatorial today as it was a hundred years back, but definitely, caste has a ripple effect even today. There is a kind of internalisation in the society that this job of cleaning has to be done by the Dalits. There are many examples of how even education and acquiring other skillset have not let these scavengers come out of this. Despite getting the education or acquiring other alternative skill, watertight caste binaries don’t allow them to take up other professions.

The worst affected are the women among the Dalits. Around 95% of the manual scavengers are women. Along with caste, they have to bear the double burden of class and gender. These women have become permanent victim bodies because of the constant suppression of oppression and exploitation that they undergo.

As we celebrated 74 years of Independence, what could be more shameful to our country than this? On the one hand so much money is spent on satellite technologies and cleanliness drives, but on the other hand, we have miserably failed to curb this gross practice of ‘godliness’ which costs human lives. Those who clean human excreta with bare hands suffer from different kinds of respiratory and skin diseases.

Image via Getty

More often than not, the scavengers are not given the required safety gear while entering the sewers and get choked by the sudden release of toxic gases or get drowned in the sudden gush of sewer waters. In case of such an incident of death, cash assistance is all that is thought about, but that too very rarely.

What needs to be understood is that the solution is not in providing cash assistance but providing them with all the support. As Dr B. R. Ambedkar said, “JHAADO CHODO, KALAM PAKDO” their real emancipation is in acquiring education. Any discussion today on caste smoothly lands upon reservation and reservation leads us to the debate on merit.

In a society entrenched with caste, class and patriarchy it is crucial to understand that merit is birth into privilege. We are talking about merit in a country where even classrooms are filled with discrimination and prejudices. The rate of school dropouts are very high among the Dalits and even more high among Dalit girls, years of reservation have not been successful in bringing them to the mainstream.

The focus needs to be on primary education where children are ensured discrimination free learning environment and equal learning opportunities. These safai karamcharis have been historically and deliberately kept on the margins and forced to clean the nation.

Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, and further, a law was passed again in 2013. But despite these and other constitutional provisions, we as a country have failed profoundly to abolish this practice.

When the debate gets hotter on whether India can become a superpower or not, my question is how can we even try to become a superpower, when almost 1.3 million people are enslaved to this obnoxious practice because of their mere ‘fatal accident of birth?’

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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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