Manual scavengers: India’ twilight zone workers

By Rajiv Theodore

New Delhi, Dec. 29, 2018: Meet India’s army of manual scavengers who operate in that twilight zone maintaining drains, sewers, septic tanks, railway tracks all with their bare hands without any protective gear or masks. Not to mention that they also carry and dispose of human excreta.

It may fail recent memory, but only a few of us may recall that 25 years back the government had purportedly put an end to manual scavenging by an Act. But today, there are more than half a million people who are still scooping out filth with their bare hands, braving the stench, extreme toxicity and even death.

Despite the ban, there is hardly any change visible as these twilight zone workers are at it—which is one of the most nauseating jobs in the world—they are called “manual scavengers” because they mainly scrape the waste with their bare hands without any protective gear or masks.

The Employment of Manual Scavenger and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was supposed to end the practice but the occupation persists thanks to the ever-growing number of insanitary latrines or dry toilets proliferating in the country –the number of which stands at about 2.6 million according to Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an NGO that works toward abolishing manual scavenging in the country.

The Act does not address critical aspects of provisions like the rehabilitation of those who were liberated from manual scavenging before passing the law in 2013. Liberated manual scavengers regularly face brutal atrocity and violence.

A government task force this year said there are 53,236 manual scavengers which is four times the number written in 2017’s official records. But this is still a gross underestimation as the data was only collected from 121 of more than 600 districts in the country and it didn’t include data from the largest employer of manual scavengers—the Railways.

In October this year, according to government data more than 20,500 people have been identified as involved in manual scavenging in India, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for nearly 6,000 of them, according to a new survey being conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment across 18 states.

An earlier survey conducted over a period of three years (2014-2017), based on figures provided by states, had estimated there were 13,770 manual scavengers in the country.

More alarming are the deaths. The SKA, perhaps the only one of its kind outfit, says that 1,470 people died cleaning septic tanks and sewer lines in 2017. This year over a dozen such manual scavengers perished so far and five of them were in the national capital itself.

Yet the occupation continues mainly because of the continued presence of insanitary toilets. It is also seen that those at the bottom of the hierarchy mainly constituting the sub-castes of Dalits are involved in this kind of work.

They are obviously exposed to a variety of diseases like Hepatitis A, E. coli, Rotovirus, Norovirus, and pinworms to name a few. It also explains that many of these workers face early death falling prey to cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, cardio-vascular ailments besides being exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

In another twist, a Human Rights Watch report had said that scavenging is not only a caste-oriented occupation but also gender specific with many of them being women as households with dry latrines prefer women to clean the excreta instead of men as they are located inside the house.

According to the report, on an average, women get paid as little as between 10 and 50 rupees every month per household which is abysmally low compared to the men who earn up to 300 rupees a day for cleaning sewer lines.

According to Ashif Shaikh, the founder of Jan Sahas, an organisation working to liberate the manual scavengers and other bonded laborers terms the issue as a social and gender issue that can be eradicated by sensitizing people about its ills.

“In 2012-13, we launched a nationwide march covering 200 districts across 18 states. Our objective was to make women aware of their right to live with dignity. We managed to liberate some 6,000 women during that yatra, and so far, we have liberated about 30,000 scavengers,” Shaikh said.

“Our job does not end at liberating these women. To assure them of ‘sustainable freedom’, they need to be provided with an alternative livelihood option, which is difficult in many parts of the country as people belonging to this community are still looked down upon and refused jobs,” Shaikh added.

There is some technological progress to the rescue today, that is now slowly being infused and a faster adoption of it could go a long way in reducing the manual process. About 15 innovations have been developed across the country and according to reports, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is using 70 mini jetting machines that can access narrow lanes and smaller colonies to clear the choked sewer pipes.

At the recently held ‘India SaniTech Forum’ innovators showcased their technologies amongst them was an interesting solutions which included a robot that can go down a manhole to clean the sludge; remote controlled devices that can break down sludge that has turned solid; and monitoring systems that can send alerts if the gases inside the manhole turn toxic.

Designed by a group of young engineers from Kerala which they have named ‘Bandicoot’ is capable of entering and cleaning sewers and manholes. Some units of the robot have been deployed by three municipal corporations in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and the response has been encouraging.

Yet, another innovation is a device designed by a young engineer, Divanshu Kumar, from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The device is a cylindrical hull which can be lowered into a septic tank. It can clean the sludge that settles at the bottom of the septic tank after years of accumulation of faecal matter.

Yet, focussing just on technology is not the only solution. There is an urgent need to sensitize all of us to the fact that cleaning is not a birth right of one group or gender but a collective responsibility.

The simple truth should be driven home that no one should carry others shit and that it’s completely inhuman to let people die by forcing them to be a part of a job, which is not only unhygienic but also proves to be lethal and underpaid.

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