“Manual scavengers engaged in cleaning job are no less than God as cleaning is next to God. But to their great grief, they are not even entitled to have a dignified life.” -Meera
Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets or even bare hands.[i]
Manual scavenging started in the Mughal era when there were women living under Purdah. These women used to use private toilets which had to be cleaned by hand. During the British administration, municipalities came up. Manual scavengers had to collect and dispose of the faeces. The job of manual scavengers is still relevant today with Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011 stating that there are 182,505 households in rural India with at least one member doing manual scavenging. Another private study states that there are about 160,000 manual scavengers in India.
The job of manual scavenging right from its origin in the Mughal era was given to Dalits due to prevalence of caste system. It was assigned not just to Dalits but, to the lowest of Dalit sub-castes. Other Dalits discriminate and ostracise those sub-castes involved in manual scavenging.
A research paper states that women who are manual scavengers face three-fold discrimination. They face discrimination for coming from lower castes, for being untouchables amongst untouchables and for being women.
In India, every five days, a manual scavenger dies in a sewer, septic tank or a manhole.[ii]The life expectancy for a sewer worker in India is about 40. Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Tuberculosis is rife in the community.
Manual scavenging is interpreted by some to be an “injustice akin to slavery” pays the workers next to nothing. Women manual scavenger are paid in kind, given two Rotis by every household they work in. Men are paid a bit more than women counterparts, earning between Rupees 15 to Rupees 300 per day. If they refuse to work or try to negotiate wages, the upper-caste people threaten them and subject them to abuse.
Manual scavenging is a gross violation of human rights and deeply inhumane to the people forced to do it. The problem of manual scavenging ticks the boxes of caste-based discrimination, health, poverty and ill-treatment of women. Despite, ticking all the right boxes that require the government’s attention, the government over the course of many years has failed to take a step in the right direction.
Since 1953 multiple commissions have reported manual scavenging, many schemes and laws have been implemented in order to stop the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitate the manual scavengers.
The most recent of these laws is The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
Under the act, anyone employing a manual scavenger or constructing an insanitary latrine, he shall be punished with imprisonment up to one year or a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 or both. The penalty for subsequent offences is higher. Every local authority or agency is prohibited from employing a person for hazardous cleaning (manual cleaning without protective gear and other safety precautions) of a sewer or a septic tank. The act received backing from the Judiciary when the Supreme Court in a case said:
The key features of the act are enumerated below:
In the course of seven years, the act has failed to achieve much. It is the District Officer who is entrusted with identifying manual scavengers and rehabilitating them. If the District Officer in identifying manual scavengers, there is no mechanism to review his work. As a result of this, many manual scavengers haven’t been uplifted. As per 2017 statistics, the government claims that 91% of manual scavengers have been provided with a one-time cash payment of Rs 40,000 and 80% of identified scavengers and their dependents have been selected for skill training under the rehabilitation programme for manual scavengers. Without the review mechanism for the work of district officers
But, the number of manual scavengers identified by the states is just 7% of the households with at least a single member engaged in manual scavenging, according to Census 2011. This leaves 93% of total manual scavengers deprived of reaping benefits of the law. Moreover, a public hearing of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity and Eradication of Manual Scavenging) at New Delhi revealed that due to rampant corruption 76% of the people who received benefits were outside the eligible criteria.
So far, only 13 states have been able to identify 12,742 manual scavengers.[iii] Despite the Census of 2011 showing that every state had manual scavengers.
Under the act, identified manual scavengers were entitled to receive loans at a nominal rate to start a small business. The loans however, hardly found any takers as manual scavengers owing to low level of literacy and confidence and fear of non-repayment don’t want to set up small businesses. Between 2017-18, none of the identified scavengers took any loans under the scheme. They prefer the role of sanitation worker with the municipality/panchayat.
As mentioned earlier, hundreds of manual scavengers die every year due to lack of safety equipment. While the act mandates providing manual scavengers with safety equipment, it fails to clearly define safety equipment. The Supreme Court in its judgement laid emphasis on providing safety equipment to workers than providing Rupees 10 lakh compensation to workers.
There are contradicting articles on compensation packages given to families of deceased manual scavengers. One news source states “Rather than following the Supreme Court’s orders of ensuring that manual scavengers are provided with safety gear and that the sanitation infrastructure is restructured, municipalities chose the compensation route as they mostly outsource the unsanitary sanitation work.”[iv] Meanwhile, another report suggests that receiving the compensation packages is unheard of.
Perhaps the biggest fallacy of this act that many government institutions employ manual scavengers despite the employment being criminalised. Indian Railways is known to employ manual scavengers. There are about 95,000 people engaged in the work through contractual employment without any safety gear.[v] The Railways has a peculiar problem of small latrines constructed inside the railway compartments which requires manual removal. This problem can easily be solved by constructing portable/removable small septic tanks beneath the small latrines inside the compartments, which may be cleared in the stations from time to time.
A Human Rights Watch report states that in a village of Uttar Pradesh, women are employed in manual scavenging with the full knowledge of village authorities. In Maharashtra, multiple panchayats employ manual scavengers. Often denying them their rights, if the manual scavengers refuse to work.
One of the goals of Swach Bharat Abhiyan was to make India open-defecation free. Many toilets were and are being built under this scheme. However, more toilets don’t necessarily translate to more hygiene. States often don’t have proper sludge management systems, the cost of building toilets or water scarcity in the area may require many toilets to have the excreta removed by hand. After the introduction of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, provisions in the act which stipulated for improper toilet constructions to be demolished has disappeared into the thin air and no toilets have been demolished.
No one should be subjected to a form of employment so cruel and so inhumane. The practise of manual scavenging should have stopped years ago. The shortcomings of the act along with the low education levels among the manual scavengers make the act to be successful. Nevertheless, the act was the first of its kind to provide recognition and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. No act can solve the problem of manual scavenging until the problem of toilets is solved. Manual scavenging is attributed to the high cost of toilet construction and lack of sewage connectivity.
Modern toilets do have the merits to solve the problem of manual scavenging. However, these toilets are not environmentally sustainable as they use large portions of water. There are organisations which make water-conserving toilets without the need for it to be cleaned manually. The ultimate solution to manual scavenging isn’t to replace them with water-based sewage system but, to adopt new technology which conserves water and makes resources out of waste by composting the faeces.