Manual Scavenging – Explained, pointwise

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Throughout history, the society has undergone profound changes in power dynamics and political ideals that have transformed individual lives as well as the idea of the collective. But the modernizing forces have been biased against the marginalized sections including dalits. This is testified by the continued existence of manual scavenging despite the same being prohibited by a Statutory Act and Supreme Court order. The practice is mainly carried on by the alleged lower caste people in India and creates numerous hardships for them. Keeping this in mind, a plethora of steps are desired to make India completely free from manual scavenging. 

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What is the meaning of manual scavenging?

It is defined as ‘the removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, gutters and sewers’.

Manual scavengers usually use hand tools such as buckets, brooms and shovels. The workers have to move the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which they carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometers away.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) distinguishes three forms of manual scavenging: (a) Removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, (b) Cleaning septic tanks, and (c) Cleaning gutters and sewers.

What is the extent of manual scavenging in India?

Although the practice was banned under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013, the inhumane exercise continues. 

According to the Government data, 97% of manual scavengers are Dalits. The breakdown of numbers reveals that 42,594 manual scavengers belong to Scheduled Castes, 421 belong to Scheduled Tribes and 431 belong to Other Backward Classes. However the number may be grossly underreported.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 had identified 180,657 manual scavengers (does not include urban India) with highest number of them in rural Maharashtra.

The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) estimates the number of manual scavengers to be around 1.2 million.

Read More: Manual scavenging has gone underground in India: WHO
What is the need to eliminate manual scavenging?

Dehumanising Activity: Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees ‘Right to Life’ with dignity. The practice of manual scavenging lowers an individual’s self esteem in society and is considered as a dehumanising activity.

Emboldens the concept of purity and pollution: Caste structure continues to reinforce inequality as a basic value based on the concept of purity and pollution. The allocation of labor is one of its prime manifestations. As per the notion, the alleged lower class must engage in inhuman occupations like manual scavenging.

Against Equality: Dalits often face discrimination when seeking employment in other sectors apart from traditional ancestral roles. Continuance of Manual scavenging further creates barriers for them and impedes their mobility.

Health Concerns: Manual scavenging can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, diarrhoea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning due to exposure to human excreta and harmful gases such as H2S and methane.  The health issues are aggravated due to malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare.

These sanitation workers, rarely have any personal protective equipment making them susceptible to poisonous gasses in the pits. According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan, at least 472 people have died cleaning human excreta during the last five years.

International Commitments: India is party to UN declaration on Human rights, Convention to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women etc., which prohibit continuance of practices like manual scavenging.

What steps have been taken towards elimination of manual scavenging?

Prohibition of the Employment of Manual Scavengers Act 2013: The law intends to eliminate insanitary latrines and prohibits employment as manual scavengers. It also prohibits hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.

Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989: It became an integrated guard for sanitation workers as more than 90% people employed as manual scavengers belonged to the Scheduled Caste. This became an important landmark to free manual scavengers from designated traditional occupations.

Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS): The scheme launched by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment aims to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time bound manner.

Supreme Court order, 2014: It made it mandatory for the Government to identify all those who died in sewage work since 1993 and provide Rs. 10 lakh each as compensation to their families.

National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK): It is a statutory body established under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act 1993. The main aim of the commission is to promote and safeguard the rights of the Safai Karamcharis.

Read More: Cabinet approves extension of tenure of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis for three years

National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation: It is building capacity at the local government level, providing mechanized desludging trucks and financial assistance to sanitation workers.

Swachh Bharat Mission: It led to the construction of toilets with on-site sanitation systems like septic tanks and pits.

Atal Mission for rejuvenation and urban transformation: It has led to the development of infrastructure such as sewerage networks, sewerage treatment plants across 500 cities.

Why is the practice still prevalent?

Government Apathy: Both the Central and State Governments are notorious for hiding the problem. Many contradictions are found in government data itself. In a reply to a question in Parliament, the government said that there is no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging and no death has been reported due to the practice in five years. However, in a reply to another question, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment recognised 66,692 manual scavengers.

Vicious cycle of Poverty: Dalits are expected to clean dry latrines, carry loads of human excrement, and clear sewage for little or no income. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty which makes it difficult to switch to new occupations.

Social Prejudice: Even when manual scavengers get an education and a degree, the burden of caste is heavy. Ambedkar had observed that “in India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not”.

Misrepresentation using Contractors: According to some well-researched media reports, the Indian Railways, the army, and urban municipalities remain the biggest bodies that still have workers engaged in manual scavenging. They either find ways to outsource such work to contractors so as not to be held directly accountable or liable or simply misrepresent such workers as ‘sweepers’.

Half hearted Rehabilitation: The Government scheme provides for one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, skill development training, and capital subsidy for self-employed projects. But the lack of a reliable database makes these efforts futile.

Poor implementation of laws:  There have been next to no serious legal proceedings against people and organisations accused of engaging workers for manual scavenging.

Existence of insanitary latrines: According to the 2011 Census, there are more than 26 Lakh insanitary latrines in the country. The existence of insanitary latrines creates a demand for manual scavenging and keeps sustaining the practice.

What are the remedial measures?

First, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 should be duly passed. It proposes to completely mechanize sewer cleaning, introduce ways for ‘on-site’ protection and provide compensation to manual scavengers in case of sewer deaths.

Second, the revamped law should further be read along with the SC & ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 in order to strengthen it.

Third, the government should look for technological solutions to reduce the prevalence of manual scavenging e.g., a bandicoot robot can be used. It goes inside the manhole and mimics all the actions of a human scavenger.

Fourth, The recommendations of the NHRC against manual scavenging must be implemented.

Read More: NHRC recommends measures against manual scavenging

Fifth, collaboration with public spirited individuals like Bezwada Wilson and organizations like Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is desired. It would help in better formulation and implementation of policies for the manual scavengers. Their strength can also be leveraged for bringing an attitudinal change in society. 

Sixth, it is important to understand that this is not just a problem of technology or financial assistance but also of social prejudice. There is a need of community engagement and sensitisation to eliminate the caste based prejudices.

Seventh, most importantly states need to accurately enumerate the workers engaged in manual scavenging to prudently move on the path of complete eradication.

Manual scavenging is regarded as inhuman and a violation of the basic human rights. This practice is prevalent and needs collaborative efforts of government, civil society and every individual to end it. This would help in better integration of dalits in the society and reduce the extent of discrimination faced by them.

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