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.
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.
Yes, we are in 2021! Still waste management remains among the serious nuisance in society. Regardless of modernisation, waste management remains one of the most underpaid and menacing jobs in the country. There have been a number of cases of significant occupational morbidities that put sewer workers at a great deal of risk.
Manhole is a 2016 Indian Malayalam film directed by Vidhu Vincent that depicts the pathetic situation of a manual scavenger and his family. In the film, the sanitation worker had died during his work and his daughter was fighting a legal battle to get justice for all sanitation workers.
Many newspaper reports have shown that sanitation workers can die by inhaling hydrogen sulphide gas while cleaning drainage systems, sewage treatment plants or septic tanks. Apart from this, there are associated co-morbidities that have long-term effects. In the following paragraphs, I would like to refer to a few facts associated with the sanitation sector.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment stated that 110 deaths had occurred in 2019 while cleaning septic tanks and sewers. In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was enacted with the stated objective of declaring the employment of manual scavenging an offence. Later, in 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed and intended to fill the existing loopholes in the previous Act. One significant improvement in the 2013 Act is its focus on reforming the working conditions of sewage workers. Then why is there an absence of safer technological/mechanised alternatives in the sanitation sector in many places?
There are around 30,000 sweepers employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, all of whom are Dalits and have an average life expectancy of 45 years. Recently, the Indian government announced Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) Phase II with a prior focus on sustaining the Open Defecation Free status of many regions across the country. But the fact is that many people still practice open defecation and reject regular toilet use. This is because a majority of them believe that having toilets inside or near their houses is a source of pollution that can affect the purity of their house.
But the real dirt exists in the societal structure. India has many clean public spaces, like its streets, markets, hospitals, malls etc. But the nation is still sinking in the social issue of caste discrimination that sets apart a group who are forced with the responsibility of cleanliness for others.
The need of the hour is to end this hierarchical system and extend the responsibility of lower social groups from occasional supervision to periodic supervision, along with financial support. Many surveys show that the practice of removing human excreta manually persists in society even today. The Central government has implemented many plans to amend the 2013 Act and mechanise cleaning, but none of them addresses the issue of labour safety.
The impact of Covid-19 has only increased the workload of sanitation workers by serving in Covid-19 wards. Unlike other labour forces, sanitation workers do not have a separate rule book that carries guidelines for their work-related matters, including their safety.
When India imposed a lockdown to control the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, sanitation workers were at the forefront to maintain the hygiene services. A study conducted in June 2020 showed that 93% of all sanitation workers didn’t get access to personal protective equipment kits and training on how to stay safe from Covid-19 infection.
This points to a dark reality: even though Covid-19 created many disparities in society, the beliefs associated with the caste issue has aided these disparities. Along with their exposure to health risks, professionally, the sanitation workers are getting waived based on their caste status.
In India, most sanitation workers belong to the Dalit community and have been linked with the caste system since their birth. Wherever there was a shortage of sweepers and scavengers in urban areas, municipal authorities looked for Dalits from rural areas to meet the shortage. This bolstered caste oppression into a reserved occupation. This is the only sector with an unstated 100% reservation for those belonging to scheduled groups. Once a sanitation worker retires, the work will be passed on directly to their children and thus, to the whole generation.
Another issue is the contractualisation of sanitation work that not only lowers their wages but also offers them poor working conditions. No authority from the local self-government has taken responsibility for this.
The Social and Behavioural Change Communication (SBCC) activities by Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) should address the caste-based practice of manual scavenging. Can India claim to be a nation with a self-cleaning system? How can safer technology be designed to replace manual work? Could it be that the Central government is neglecting the real crisis by promoting the positive facet of SBM?
An IndiaSpend report pointed out that only one in four people in households with toilets actually use them. If the SBM refuses to take cognisance of these inequalities and incorporate measures to address them, then effectively, it cannot accomplish the goals that it has set for itself. There are many who lead an unhygienic life in the eyes of others, but they are working ultimately to make society cleaner. It is time to demolish certain activities that have been going around in the name of swachhata (cleanliness), which is boosting caste discrimination.
About the author: Ginju Elsa Mathew is a young professional at UNICEF, Chennai.