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“Basket Of Excreta On Women’s Heads Is Put There By Only Caste And Patriarchy”

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.

“I took my youngest son with me to work. He had a job at the flour mill. The owner saw a broom in his hands and removed him from the job, saying that he is a Bhangi,” says a woman sanitation worker from Uttar Pradesh. Author Bhasha Singh says, “Caste Hierarchy and Patriarchy have an unbroken relationship and this is its most disgusting form where a person has to pick up another human’s excreta.”

How unfortunate is it that the practice of manual scavenging still continues in India, though we’ve crossed 74 years of independence? A huge part of India remains totally unaware of the fact that around 48, 345 Indian citizens are engaged in manual scavenging according to a national survey conducted in 18 states, till January 31, 2020. The worst sufferers in this situation are the women who have to bear the burden of both caste and gender discrimination. They form around 95-98% of the total number of workers engaged in manual scavenging, which is estimated to be around 1.2 million. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar have the highest number of women workers engaged in manual scavenging. 

People involved in manual scavenging are considered to be untouchables in the Varna System’, i.e. they are seen to be existing below the ‘Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra’ and treated as ‘Ati Shudra’ in this hierarchy. Belonging mainly to the Valmiki caste (urban Dalit community in Punjab and Delhi), Haila and Halakhor castes (from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), Mister and Dome castes (from Bihar), these women are called ‘untouchables’, even among the Dalit communities.

If asked at colonies of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh “who takes away the sewage and other garbage from there?” it is a very common instance to hear –“the ‘Bhangis’ come and do that”. The word ‘Bhangi’, if loosely translated, means an individual with a broken identity.Activist Martin Macwan provides an insight into that, and said “The word ‘Bhangi’ is derived from the concept that a person’s identity is broken because of alcoholism, as if this is the only community which is consuming alcohol.”  

The women are forced to clean dry latrines, discard placenta post-deliveries, clear sewage every day, against their will. To add to that, they face sexual harassment, are given dismal wages, and have to endure several instances of gender-based discrimination at work every day. According to many activists, the reality of manual scavenging is that the dirtiest of the work is mostly done by women and not men, and yet the women receive less money at the end of the day.

The women engaged in manual scavenging are paid as little as ₹2 to ₹20 a day. Author Vasa Singh says, “where ever you have discrimination, women suffer the most as victims. This basket of excreta on the women’s heads has been put there by only caste and patriarchy“, and undoubtedly, it is one of the worst realities that we just cannot avoid.

Keeping aside the economic problems, inaccessible education, mental trauma, the female manual scavengers have to bear the irreparable physical damages caused due to their job. Without proper access to healthcare, they have to face serious health issues such as skin rashes, palpitations, respiratory problems, permanent loss of hair and many more to say. 

Young girls are forced to take up manual scavenging and work with their mothers-in-law post marriage. The girls and women who refuse to take up the job or leave it at any point are ostracized and not allowed to participate in any kind of celebrations or ceremonies. In many cases, young girls are assigned as manual scavengers at the very age when they are supposed to go to school. And, even if they are fortunate enough to go to school, the stigma they have to face courtesy the teachers and other students leads to them being alienated within classrooms. The staff and students are found to be involved in minimal interaction with them.

What is this if not a vicious cycle?

The steps that can be taken to break the cycle include not just the introduction of advanced sewage systems and application of technology to prevent scavenging but also proper training and disseminating awareness for women sanitation workers in the field of technology. The focus should also be on securing jobs that are a choice of their own. But, what is the most important change we should work towards? Changing society’s mindset.

Though the government has introduced amendments to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, it still continues to be a blunder in the same way as that of the previous two Acts of 1993 and 2013. Not only does it fail in implementation, but it also excludes the women workers and refuse to acknowledge the extreme conditions they work in.

As manual scavenging continues, there are several laws and Rights that are violated every day including Articles 14,15,17,21, as well as the Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955), the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989) the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act (1952), the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1923), Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act (1961) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (2013). While the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 were enacted with the very basic intention to execute equality. (Not) Surprisingly, these fail to do even that.

When the burden of manual scavenging is put on the women, the right to equality is violated on two grounds- gender as well as caste. “They are also not eligible for an average daily wage for a period of six weeks post-delivery, which is promised under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 for women employees. On the contrary, these women are found lifting heavy baskets of faeces on their hips and head even during pregnancy,” according to a report by EPW. 

In a country where we almost often find politicians and ministers, among many others, shouting “Constitution Badlo,” it doesn’t really come as a surprise to find the violation of so many laws, does it?

Representational image.

Similar to their exclusion from the amended 2013 law, most women also don’t have access to basic government welfare measures such as the Public Distribution System, Anganwadi services, and more. For instance, under the Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, the rehabilitation provisions for women yet remain left to be implemented under the Central and State governments. Due to this, women who have left manual scavenging face several barriers when it comes to accessing basic survival needs such as shelter and employment, despite having support from various community-based civil society initiatives. The Constitutional Laws, as pointed out by several experts, are absolutely hollow and meaningless as those continue to ignore the deaths, diseases and refuse the violence.

 So, how can we exactly help to stop this inhuman act? The very first step should be to start sensible discussions, raise voices and speak up on these issues. The women need to be provided with a space to raise their voices, for which NGOs, unions and associations are expected to play a pivotal role.Technological advancement has to be introduced but not end at just that. The workers have to be properly trained in these fields alongside other job opportunities.

Surveys need to be arranged in areas to have a better understanding of the number of people involved, sanitation service provision, working conditions in the respective regions. As for the remaining, we hope to see a day when the women workers get theur due, the government puts (and implements) a total ban on manual scavenging and executes better sewage systems in every village, town, city of every state in the country. THAT DAY IS YET TO COME. 

Featured image for representation 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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