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Caste, Class, Gender: The Missing Pieces In India’s Manual Scavenging Solution

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This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Women and girls represent half of the world’s population. Gender equality, besides being a fundamental human right, is essential to achieve a peaceful society.

But let me just break it down to you, there is one sector of job which has a huge amount of female representation, a job deeply rooted with casteism and sexism which involves the underprivileged women from the society to clear other people’s excreta.

How does that sound? Does it portray the concept of justice, dignity and equity?

Well, the answer of course is no.

At least 90% of India’s estimated 1.3 million manual scavengers are women, according to campaign group Jan Sahas. Representational image.

Manual scavenging, a term used for disposing of faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand, long before abolished by law but has long been a generational occupation carried out by the Dalit group in the Indian caste system.

At least 90% of India’s estimated 1.3 million manual scavengers are women, according to campaign group Jan Sahas.

“It is not just a case of caste discrimination, but also gender discrimination, as women are forced to do this basest of jobs,” said Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas. He adds, “The women do not have a choice, they are paid a pittance, and are threatened with violence if they quit. There’s a lot of pressure from the village, the community, and their own families.”

India, which in terms of laws has abolished caste discrimination and manual scavenging, has a different ground reality. India is still deeply rooted in the practice of caste, class and gender discrimination. What has changed over the years is that we have a few organizations trying to raise the issue and sensitize people over the issue so that every individual takes their own accountability.

The laws and policies have tried to stop this, but it could not stop the suffering of a Dalit and the practice still continues.

In 1993, India banned the employment of people as manual scavengers. The Manual Scavengers Act passed in 2013 seeks to reinforce this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging in every form and talks about the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.

Women Manual scavengers are at a double disadvantage. As members of Dalit/Adivasi community, they face continuous discrimination and since they are into cleaning and working, the so-called society excludes them. They are dependent on the job since it’s generational and they are also deprived of most resources like food security, education, health care etc. With policies not being implemented in a proper way, it makes it harder for the deprived sections to leave this practice which is their livelihood and source of income. Through it, some of them try to protect their children by trying to give them education and food which again is a big privilege that we as a society fail to recognise.

It is sad that the policies have hardly focused on the caste, class and gender-based discrimination which is being faced by our fellow individuals.

The new policy hardly mentions about the annihilation of this caste-based discriminatory practice.

The Amendment Bill Of 2020 Continues To Make The Same Grievous Errors As The First Two

It somehow refuses to acknowledge the extreme violence, and the absolute violation of human rights, that manual scavenging is. They refuse to acknowledge disease and death, hence elementary compensation, guaranteed by the earlier bills, is rarely ever provided to the victim’s family.

The government only recognises latrine cleaners, railway cleaners, sewer cleaners and faecal sludge handlers as manual scavengers, but the data is very poor and almost everyone agrees that these figures are a gross underrepresentation. Estimates made by different organisations have yielded numbers ranging from 182,000 – 2 million for these types of work. Waste treatment plant workers, drain cleaners, community and public toilet cleaning, domestic workers and school toilet cleaners are not recognised under the Act, though they work with human faecal matter and other dangerous waste too.”

This report shows how the law itself is inadequate. This overlooking of different types of work and workers will also make sure that employers and contractors can get away with human rights and wage violation. Human Rights Watch covers all the aspects and the suffering of a manual scavenger. Even if one tries to leave, they are faced with numerous threats.

The Amendment Bill of 2020 refuses to acknowledge the extreme violence, and the absolute violation of human rights, that manual scavenging is. Representational image.

In November 2012, when Gangashri along with 12 other women in Parigama village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri district voluntarily stopped cleaning dry toilets, men from the dominant Thakur caste came to their homes and threatened to deny them grazing rights and expel them from the village. Despite these threats, the women refused to return to manual scavenging. Soon after, some 20 to 30 upper-caste men from Parigama confronted the community. Gangashri recalls, “They called our men and said ‘If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up.’ They said, ‘We will not let you live in peace.’ We were afraid.”

This incident makes me wonder if this is the society we want? Why is it that someone coming from a deprived class is still forced to do such a job? What about accountability? Why do our policies not cover the aspects of caste, gender, class and privilege? How are such threat issues handled by authorities? If reported, was there a step taken? The questions are numerous, the gap is big. It will take all of us as societies, institutions, policymakers and implementers to create this massive change.

It’s really high time that we start thinking and acknowledging this discriminatory issue of caste, class, gender and privilege and come up with better interventions. In the language of Babasaheb Ambedkar, “Maybe just annihilate the practice.”

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

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