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What Forces The Dalit Communities To Continue This Undignified Work?

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.

Today, we believe that caste or untouchability no longer exists. That India has rid itself of such archaic, demeaning practices. But this is far from the truth. 

Ask any person coming from the so-called lower-castes and they will tell you. Caste discrimination and untouchability are their everyday reality. And no, it does not just happen in the rural areas. Subtle forms of caste-based discrimination exist in the metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities as well. 

I am an urban Dalit, who has lived and worked in Tier1 and Tier 2 cities like Pune, Delhi, Mumbai. And I have experienced caste bias in all these cities. People will ask your surname to know your caste. They use caste slurs like “mahar / maharin / maharki”, “chamars”, “bhangi”, and many more before you or even at you. Or say things like “you don’t look like a Dalit”, or “you speak good English for an SC.”

Caste discrimination manifests itself not only through words like these, or ideologies, or behaviours, and attitudes but also through occupations. 

One example of how caste and caste-based discrimination manifests in occupations is the continuing practice of manual scavenging. 

caste discrimation education
Representational image.

What Is Manual Scavenging?

Manual scavenging includes but is not limited to the removal of human excreta or night soil with hands using tools such as brooms, buckets, or baskets. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 provides a detailed definition of Manual scavengers. 

“manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed…., for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises”

It is an attempt to identify the persons engaged in this disparaging practice. Alas, only a half-hearted one as it leaves out several other persons engaged in the handling of dead bodies and animal carcasses, of biomedical wastes, rag picking, cleaning of septic tanks and sewers, and so on. As a consequence, government data on the number of manual scavengers and their condition is abysmal. The number of “identified” manual scavengers is far too less than the actual number of people involved in this practice. 

The 2013 law attributes the continuance of this dehumanising practise to the existence of insanitary latrines and the iniquitous caste system. The act, therefore, demanded the demolition of these insanitary latrines and so they were. But shouldn’t we be focussing on demolishing the caste system? After all, that is the actual root cause for the continuing practice of manual scavenging.

How Does This Practice Affect Dalit Communities?

Manual scavenging impedes the social mobility of Dalits. They are subjected to discrimination, exclusion, isolation, and violence. It does not only affect their social status but also their health and mental well-being. A report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) highlights how manual scavengers face serious health concerns. They are exposed to various health hazards, diseases, and skin infections. They end up resorting to tobacco, gutka, and alcohol to cope with their repulsive working conditions. 

The harmful gases and sludge from sewers are intoxicating and at times even fatal. According to Water Aid, three sanitation workers die at work every five days. The number of manual scavenger deaths has been increasing over the past few years.

2019 alone has seen about 110 deaths during cleaning sewers and septic tanks. The highest number being reported from Uttar Pradesh.

Who Is Involved In Manual Scavenging?

Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolishes untouchability. However, in tacit forms, it remains the most stubborn blot that exists on the conscience of India even today. How else do you explain the overwhelming numbers of Dalits involved in manual scavenging? The data suggests that there are an estimated 1.3 million Dalits engaged in manual scavenging. It is not their occupation of choice but something they are forced to do owing to their so-called low caste status. The systemic discrimination they face throughout their lives does not allow them to seek out better educational and employment opportunities. 

Of the 1.3 million, 95 to 98% are women. They are forced to clean dry latrines with their bare hands, carry the ‘maila’ or dirt on their heads and shoulders and dispose it outside the villages. 

According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, as of 2019, it has identified 62,334 manual scavengers from 18 states, despite the practice being prohibited since 1993. A report by National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) shows that the state of Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of manual scavengers with Maharastra coming in second. 

These reports, however, do not specify the communities these 62,334 people belong to. But given the caste-based nature of this occupation, it would not be wrong to assume that most of them come from Dalit communities. Because not every Dalit is a manual scavenger but almost all of the manual scavengers come from Dalit and Mahadalit communities. 


Why Are The Manual Scavenging Laws So Ineffective?

The first-ever law enacted to prohibit manual scavenging was in 1993 – The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction on Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. And then another was passed in 2013. However, the employment of manual scavengers still continues. Dalits still continue to die in the city sewers. So where are these laws exactly falling short? 

The first reason, one can think of is the lack of will on the part of the state in realizing the full extent of this evil practice. The central and state governments are in denial of the fact that manual scavenging continues. And this stops them from identifying the large numbers of manual scavengers and implementing welfare schemes for the millions involved. Such an attitude of the State forces the Dalit communities to continue this undignified work.

Apart from completely denying the existence of manual scavenging, the state also does not acknowledge the caste-based aspect of it. None of the laws make any mention of the different castes that are involved in this practice or of ways to prevent their caste-based oppression. The focus more often than not is on the technical aspect of the issue such as – the presence of insanitary latrines. When in fact, we should be working on the eradication of the caste system which lies at the root of such practices. 

The gender insensitivity of these laws is another reason for their failure. As they are directed towards men when most of the manual scavengers are women (IDSN report). 

The funds allocated for the rehabilitation and welfare of the manual scavengers also remain under-utilised. For instance, the Rs 110 crore allocated in the year 2020-21 has remained un-utilised. Moreover, the budget allocation for manual scavenger has been reduced for the financial year of 2021-22.

All in all these laws fail on several levels. Any other laws made by the state or recommendations by the rights organizations are bound to fail too. And that is until we bring about an ideological change in our society. 

As long as we continue to abide by the tyrannical, derogatory principles of the caste hierarchy, practices such as manual scavenging will continue to exist.

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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