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In India, Manual Scavenging Goes Beyond An ‘Occupation’: It’s A Human Rights Issue

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.

Most of you reading this probably do not think about your shit after flushing it. Some people, though, are not so privileged. Indian society and the caste system force them to touch human excreta with bare hands, to dive in clogged sewers without any protection. To deal with hazardous waste- used syringes, toxic biomedical waste, noxious gases, human and animal corpses, without proper compensation, without dignity.

We are talking about Manual scavenging. Yes. Even In 2021.

What Is Manual Scavenging?

From a limited perspective, it is the process of clearing human excrement from toilets, septic tanks, or sewers by hand. Globally also, humans do Sewage diving to clear clogged sewers.

But in India, it is not an occupation but a human rights issue. Why?

Deep-rooted in the caste system, this practice is forced upon Dalit communities specifically. Over 1.3 million people in India are manual scavengers. 99% of those are Dalits. Among them, 95% are women. (International Dalit Solidarity Network) In many countries, due to the risk involved, the pay for sewage divers is disproportionately high. But in India, manual scavengers are coerced and threatened into modern slavery by caste stigmas and lack of opportunities.

There are inadequate safety protocols or equipment. Despite exposure hazards, deadly infections, toxic fumes, there is no health insurance or healthcare facilities. “One person has died every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country” [National Commission for Safai Karamcharis]. This number might be a gross underestimation due to a lack of data. Developed countries treat sewage divers as heroes.

In India, they are humiliated, ghettoised, treated as polluting, and prevented from joining the mainstream. “Manual scavenging is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.” [National Advisory Council resolution] Does it still exist? Why are we talking about this in 2021? Many people find it hard to believe that such a repulsive practice still exists. In November 2019, a report India Brief: The hidden world of sanitation workers in India, was published by WaterAid, a non-profit.

These were the findings. [Box1]
“While media sensitivity and societal attention happen only around the unfortunate episodes of deaths during sewer or septic tank cleaning, these fatalities form only the tip of the iceberg,” the report stated. Media and society tend to see these deaths in isolation and rarely ever try to go in-depth about why such deaths occur, even in present times.

Besides the septic and sewage cleaning in urban areas, there is a total lack of awareness about rural and semi-urban sanitation. These are the places with dry toilets, lack of sewage systems, explicit caste hierarchy – where manual scavenging flourishes brazenly, in its most malignant form.  But because of media apathy, most readers might still be uninformed and living in denial that this social evil persists.

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Can’t They Stop Doing It?

These are excerpts from a report by Human Rights Watch – Cleaning Human Waste: “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India.

No one would want to carry human waste out of choice. Often in villages, access to resources is denied to stop Dalits, especially women, from leaving this work. This is accompanied by threats of physical violence and social boycott. The criminal justice system, especially at the lower levels, often fails to empathise with them.

The HRW report talks about how Valmiki women of Parigama village failed to file a complaint at the local police station against the dominant castes harassing them for leaving manual scavenging. It took the intervention of NGO Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a visit to the distant district police headquarters, and an appeal to the Superintendent of Police to even initiate an FIR.  Another excerpt here, from the same report, talks about the difficulties faced by the marginalised sections in accessing the criminal justice system.

Despite all these factors, if a person manages to break away from their shackles, they cannot find alternative employment due to a lack of employable skills and stigma attached to their caste. Many have to return to manual scavenging.

“It was also found that some scavengers have tried to challenge their social and economic status by changing their jobs. But finally, they have to return to their original profession because of a social boycott and the lack of support from both private and governmental agencies. The law and order machinery has also proved inefficient. For example, Chinta Devi of Meherpur locality, started her shop with a loan arranged by a local NGO and left this menial job. But later she resumed this humiliating job as she faced a severe boycott even by her own community.” [Case Study in Ghazipur district of UP]

In urban areas, migration and anonymity have in some cases resulted in upward occupational mobility among Dalits, but the majority continue to perform their traditional functions. Manual sanitation in urban centres also rests on the caste system. Most work as sweepers and scavengers in urban centres as well.

What Laws Exist Against This Practice?

  • Before 1993, even State governments had a post called ‘scavenger’ for manually removing human excreta in households and designated places. The local authorities levied scavenging tax on houses for availing this service. 
  • Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was the first step in banning manual scavenging. But it failed due to its limited scope, narrow reach (limited only to a few states), and inadequate punishments. This Act did not have any deterrent effect. Its failure led to much litigation. Finally, the Supreme Court issued directions for rehabilitating manual scavengers in Safai Karamchari Andolan v/s Union of India (2014).
  • Adopting the recommendations of the Safai Karamchari Andolan case, the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was passed. It expanded the definition of ‘manual scavenger’, provided for heavier punishments and protection to the weaker sections of the society. It also increased focus on rehabilitation, with provisions of training and cash assistance.
  • However, the 2013 law did not successfully translate into practice. Dry toilets continued to exist, so did the employment of Dalit persons to clean them. Lack of data hindered rehabilitation and protective gear not used in practice. And most importantly, this law had no provision for undoing historical injustice by providing quality education or guaranteed alternate jobs for children of safai karamcharis.

Yet again, the amendment fails to address the issue of caste. Caste – the reason behind unchanging attitudes towards manual scavengers, despite improvements in technology. 

It also fails to include sanitation workers employed in hazardous jobs like biomedical waste management, garbage collection, rag picking, cremation of dead bodies, and so on, who also mostly happen to be Dalits. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these essential workers were hailed as Corona Warriors but their safety and protection were as usual neglected. They worked without any special training, safety instructions, health check-ups,  or even adequate protective equipment.

What Is The Way Out?

  • Stricter implementation of the law,
  • Proper surveys for data collection and skilling programmes for rehabilitation. 
  • Fixing accountability of officials – district collectors, police officials, municipal officials
  • Strict punishment for digressions.
  • Social security provisions like better healthcare facilities, insurance cover, pension plans for sanitation workers. 
  • Payment of workers should be at par with semi-skilled workers with additional hazard pay depending on the risk involved.
  • Ensure good quality education to children of manual scavengers to enable them to avail alternative livelihood options
  • Immediate compensation for families of those who lose their lives in this work. A proper mechanism for providing legal help in cases of death and legal redressal.
  • The unregularised ‘Contractual employment system’ for allotting sanitation works needs to be reassessed. Along with that formation of trade unions, self-help groups, co-operatives, and pressure groups to educate and empower sanitation workers.
  • Most important is, enlarging the scope of the definition of sanitation workers rather than manual scavengers.
  • Along with mechanisation, focus on changing attitudes. Attack the root cause by acknowledging the role of caste and how it traps people in the practice of manual scavenging. 

What Is Our Role As Individuals?

If scavenging still exists, we all are equally guilty and responsible. Our silence makes us complicit. Every one of us has a moral obligation to curb this problem.

From talking to your families and friends, spreading awareness on social media, to actively volunteering and supporting civil society groups like Safai Karamchari Andolan, Rashtriya Garima AbhiyanARUN (Association for Rural and Urban Needy) and many others, filing RTIs, reporting cases of manual scavenging in your surroundings – a lot can be done as an individual. As said by an ex-rural development minister, “unless we get a sense of shame, anger and take it as an affront to our, not just the involved person’s, dignity, there can be no change in the existing 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!

This post is part of theJaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writers' Training Program, 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 and apply.

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