Manual Scavenging — An Injustice towards Caste and Gender

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This article has been written by Mustafa Chitalwala., a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

Every morning we get up and flush our excreta down the drain, unknowingly sanitation remains a hefty challenge in countless parts of India. This practice has been exploited since donkey years. A substantial number of people in India are still involved in manual scavenging. Millions of people die because of this inhuman act becoming a subject to another number or a statistic. Manual scavenging poses multiple health threats. Every 5 days, a worker dies due to the inhalation of toxic fumes and gases while cleaning surfaces. Most of the people involved in this inhumane activity are not provided with any form of equipment and are forced to enter the poisonous sewers unequipped. This practice raises a number of questions, such as why would people take up such practices? The practices are problematic in terms of the right to health and the right to life, but this threat raises a question of discrimination and casteism. During this Covid-19 pandemic, many medical personals have been given insurance and are termed as ‘martyrs’ on their death. However, what about these unacknowledged and unrewarded heroes who rescue India’s 1.3 billion population from life-threatening diseases.

WHO ARE MANUAL SCAVENGERS?

“I clean toilets in 20 houses every day. I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement that has collected in the toilet, I collect the excrement in a basket, and then I take it and throw it away. This work is so awful that I do not feel like eating.”  —Manisha, Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh, January 2014.

There are more than 26 lakhs santiaries in India, latrines that require cleaning by hand. According to a Human Rights Watch Report, on average, these manual scavengers get paid a pittance sum of Rs 10 and Rs 50 every month per household. Manual Scavenging are mostly used in developing or third world countries where a person has to manually clean, carry, or dispose off, human excreta insanitary latrines, open drains, or pits. These manual scavengers are given no such protective equipment and usually use tools such as a bucket, broom, and shovel.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 gives a very exhaustive definition of “manual scavengers”. However, an uncomplicated definition is given by the International Labour Organization, which describes the three forms of ‘manual scavenging’ in India.

  1. Removal of human excrement from public streets and “dry latrines” (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal, but not dry toilets in general)
  2. Cleaning septic tanks
  3. Cleaning gutters and sewers

A number of these sanitation workers suffer due to weak legal protection and through social discrimination. This manual scavenging role is Gender biased and is determined by the caste system in India who are mostly the Untouchables, Unapproachable, and Unseeable.

HOW DOES CASTE-APARTHEID, GENDER & POVERTY PERPETUATE THIS PRACTICE?

Manual scavenging is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.

 —National Advisory Council resolution.[1]

The question which emerges is why do these people take up such life-threatening and menial work? The reason is that these workers are low castes and are compelled by societies, therefore they cannot find any work other than manual scavenging. It is hard for these scavengers to get jobs because of the Brahmin nature of our society that has blocked up our mindsets with caste dichotomy. Even if manual scavengers do abandon scavenging and try to search for another job, they often find it difficult because nobody is interested in employing someone “polluted.” B.R. Ambedkar had quite cogently pointed out that a scavenger is one not because of the job he does; he becomes one by his birth. The plight of the scavenger is inextricably tied to the brutal realities of the caste system.

Sub castes of Dalits- Valmiki or Hela- who falls at the bottom of this social hierarchy, take up menial jobs. Being uneducated these manual scavengers do not even know about the variety of diseases they harbor let alone their rights. These Dalit workers often face the brunt by not getting access to clean water, having to take menial jobs, denied entry at temples, barred from entering in shops, just because they were born in a low caste? Political and human rights movements have overcome certain caste barriers. However, caste continues to be used as an excuse for unjust, barbaric, and degrading abuse imposed on millions of Indians — especially in rural India, where caste designation still determines strict roles and privileges.

Alarmingly, manual scavenging is not only caste but also gender-based with more than 90 percent of them being women. A household with dry latrine prefers a woman to clean the excreta instead of men. In contrast, men are employed by the Indian railways, the largest employer of manual scavengers to clean the excreta flushed out of the trains. So, the irony of the Swachh Bharat lies where on one hand it speaks on protecting the pride of women by providing them with private sanitation spaces, on the other hand perpetuating the humiliation of women manual scavengers as they are the prominent force who cleans human excreta from dry-pit latrines.

Tools used by the Manual Scavengers to clean, carry or dispose of human excreta ( Brooms and a Basket)

 

Also Read:  EUTHANASIA: Right to die with dignity

INITIATIVES FOR ERADICATION OF MANUAL SCAVENGERS

The constitution of India abolishes Untouchability and prohibits caste-based discrimination in employment under the Scheduled Caste and Schedule tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This was the first act that punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of non-flush latrines with imprisonment up to one year or a fine of a menial Rs.2000. Surprisingly, despite this prohibition, not even a single conviction had taken place in the 20 years of the enactment of this Act.

Owing to the active efforts and focus of Dalit right-wing activists, the Parliament then enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and the Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in September 2013. It targeted and spoke about the rights of manual scavengers and efforts to protect communities engaging in manual scavenging. It dealt with rehabilitation issues instead of prohibiting dry latrines and made the use of protective gear necessary. It imposed even stricter penalties and made the offenses non-bailable. The legislation has brought hope to people. However, this act has been implemented feebly.

On 27 March 2014, a decade after the initial filing of the ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in Safai Karmachari Andolan v. Union of India that manual scavenger operations were still widespread and directed all those working as manual scavengers to be rehabilitated. Stating ‘No country sends its people to gas chambers to die’. 

RIGHTS OF MANUAL SCAVENGERS

Rights of manual scavenger have been noticed by the Supreme Court and in the Legislation. They have noticed it as a gross violation of Human Rights. Article 17 of the Constitution talks about untouchability; however, these sanitary workers belonging from the lowest social strata and face the status of being “ Untouchable, Unapproachable and Unseeable”. These workers are not provided with other jobs or denied water from the wells due to the stigma attached to them. Article 19(1)(a) is also violated under the Rights to Practise any profession. The Right to Life under Article 21 includes the right to live a healthy life and to live with human dignity. Where these Manual scavengers without protective equipment work picking up human excreta, going in reeking sewers, and often die due to the poisonous fumes which are emitted under.

SUGGESTIONS & REFORMS

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi before taking office in May 2014, said: “My identity is of a Hindutva, but I say build toilets before you build temples.” The government has taken a commitment towards changing the sanitation system in India, however, what about these Manual Scavengers? The Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her 2019 Budget Speech, spoke about the government’s plan on the eradication of Manual Scavengers. However, governments come and go, but none have taken a gruesome step towards this evil, this year also was no exception.  In the past, these workers have repeatedly requested for machines; however, the government has refused to do so because the cost per machine was Rs.2 lakh. The Government has made it evident that Money is more important than Lives.

♦Solutions to eradicate Manual Scavenging:

  • A proper rehabilitation scheme that provides adequate skills and jobs is needed. This would ensure legitimate employment opportunities and a ladder for the social advancement of self-employed workers. A relevant authority should require the duty for the successful execution of the scheme.
  • The government should invest in cost-effective machinery that can be used to clean ditches and septic tanks. They can import the pieces of machinery or tools in case they are not locally available. Also, the government should provide sanitation workers with quality protective gear.
  • District Nodal Officers, NGOs, and health officials should educate the community about the devastating effects of dry latrines. They should also educate the masses on health issues, hygiene practices, and sanitation. Government officials should inform the public about the legal implications of scavenging and dry toilets.
  • The Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan and the Total Sanitation Campaign should release some funds and strategize on how they should be used to eradicate scavenging and educate people.

[1] Hrw.org. n.d. [online]Available at: <https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/india0814_ForUpload_0.pdf>.

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