Across India, hundreds of thousands of men and women are engaged in the dehumanising practice of “manual scavenging” which is essentially the process of cleaning dry toilets or sewers and septic tank manually. This involves the method of disposing or carrying human excreta and other toxic waste with simple tools such as brooms, metal scrappers and baskets without any protective gear. The people employed with this task are usually from the caste groups relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy who belong to the poorest and the most marginalized communities in India. Manual scavenging is traditionally a caste-based occupation assigned to the members of the Dalit community which gives rise to the social stigma of untouchability and widespread discrimination. These people face immense social pressure to continue this occupation and are denied access to primary education for their children so that they can carry on this practice generation after generation.
Manual scavengers are casual workers hired on a day to day basis by contractors and are paid meagre wages of Rs 180 to Rs 200. The task of these workers is to enter the gutters, septic tank and sewers of varying length to unclog and clean the drains which require hours of work, wearing just trousers without any protective gear such as gloves, face masks, ventilators or gas concentration detectors, as the contractors avoid high costs. The workers crawl through the sewage and are often covered with waste up to their chests. Apart from filth and human excrement, they come across dead dogs and rats; broken bottles lie in the pitch-black sewage system which might lead to scars and cuts, extending to several infections. The oxygen-deficient gutters are filled with “sewer-gas” which is a toxic compound of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and many more poisonous elements which on being exposed to, causes suffocation, choking, lack of consciousness and ultimately asphyxiation.
According to a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 80% of sewage cleaners die before age 60 due to health ailments such as typhoid, hepatitis, and various cardiovascular diseases caused by manual scavenging. The first official government report stated that at least one Indian worker dies every five days while cleaning sewers since the start of 2017. The national socio-economic census of 2011 mentions that 180,657 households engage in manual scavenging and there are around 2.6 million dry latrines prevalent all across India in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu accounting for 72% unsanitary toilets because many municipalities in India use pit latrines for a public restroom. There is no full proof data available for the exact number of people engaged in manual scavenging because most of the states undercount the number of people in this profession.
Despite the sewage systems in big cities being mechanized, there exist several structural issues such as poorly engineered or defected septic tanks, lack of complete coverage of sewer line across the towns, sewers connected to stormwater drains that get clogged which ultimately demand human intervention as the machine cannot solve the problem beyond a point. India banned the employment of people as manual scavengers in 1993. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) was founded by Bezwada Wilson, in 1994. This organization is actively engaged in eradicating manual scavenging and due to its significant efforts, the Parliament of India implemented a new law strengthening the accountability mechanisms and focused its initiative not only on the eradication of manual scavenging, but also in protecting the dignity of the communities involved in manual scavenging along with their rehabilitation.
And, hence a new legislation was passed, “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013” which seeks to reinforce this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging without protective gear in all spheres and ensure the rehabilitation of manual scavengers to be recognized through a mandatory survey. Employers of manual scavengers are liable to imprisonment and fines. The mandated district vigilance committee whose responsibility is to overlook the social and economic rehabilitation of manual scavengers as well as register offenses and investigate and prosecute the cases of manual scavenging often fail to do so, as these civic bodies are dysfunctional, and hence the contractors manage to find loopholes to employ sewage cleaners, as the workers are unaware of the laws against it.
The Indian Railways are the biggest violators of the law because the toilets in the train carriages lack proper mechanism of waste disposal as the waste is dumped on to the tracks, which are later cleaned by manual scavengers. Daily wage workers often have no option but to engage in activities such as manual scavenging due to no alternative source of employment. The Central Government of India has recently announced to conduct a fresh survey in 164 districts in India to identify men and women engaged in manual scavenging and to rehabilitate them by providing them decent housing, vocational skill training, self-employment techniques and to provide their children with education. The Indian government must not postpone once the collective obligation to eradicate one of India’s biggest bane – manual scavenging. It is our collective responsibility as a society to ensure that this inhumane task is wholly abolished and replace the existing system of cleaning with fully mechanized modern machines.
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