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Manual Scavenging – Marginalise or Economise

Cocooned comfortably amidst the tech-driven life of ours, one can just shudder at the unimaginably abominable task of cleaning human excrement from dry latrines and septic tanks to earn a living. What is even more alarming is the indifference of the masses towards the misery of these “manual scavengers” and the government’s reluctance to intervene in this dehumanizing practice. Consequently, these alienated groups are caught in a fix of political apathy and economic sustenance, which if handled optimally can improve the socio-economic status of the country.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. This apparent economic problem has deep-rooted social maladies[1] . The caste based social hierarchy has a predominant role in perpetuating the practice. Gnawing poverty, blindfolded societal discrimination exacerbated by the preformed notions of lower caste jobs further aggravate the issue.

Identifying dogmas.

In the beginning, what strikes us is the term relegated to these masses – manual scavenging. It essentially stands for “the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers” [2] . Such a task is averse to the right to live with human dignity as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian constitution. Moreover, reports reveal that this menial job has deeply entrenched orthodox psyche as mostly lower caste victims or Dalits are subjected to this claustrophobic profession, with a major share accounting for women. Reports of the International Dalit Solidarity Network claims that around 1.3 million people in India are involved in manual scavenging, out of which 99% are Dalits and 95% are women. [3]

Besides unveiling caste and gender disparities, these manual scavengers confront social ostracism and remain estranged from the mainstream life which further perpetuates the vicious cycle and reduces the scope for betterment and rehabilitation. However, this additional workforce, if rehabilitated and mobilized properly can lead to significant alleviation of the socio-economic position in the country.

Delving into the roots.

The passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was of little success in mitigating the heinous act of manual scavenging. The widespread use of insanitary dry latrines in rural areas, the lack of incentive to liberate these masses from the profession compounded by caste based social stigmatization aggravates this issue. Besides, abject poverty, indebtedness, paucity of alternative job opportunities, illiteracy, ignorance leading to high school drop-out rates among their children, perpetuates this vicious cycle and often compels the next generation to take up the “ancestral profession”, being unable to break the shackles of the impregnable inter-generational gap.

Fragmented governmental responses instead of holistic efforts, predominance of female victims in this gut-wrenching task and inadequate funding have been the major backlogs in countering the issue. Further, the delayed implementation of the requisite legislative enactments and the myths surrounding the existing societal norms which portray it to be a spiritual duty compounded by political apathy have further alienated the masses.

However, these victims, if properly enlightened by the government agencies and rehabilitated through skill development programmes can lead to the overall advancement of the country, by widening the scope of the labour market and contributing to higher GDP. The report of the National Round Table Commission reported a case of a manual scavenger from Madhya Pradesh, named Kiran Fatrod, who turned into an Anganwadi worker after being rehabilitated by an agency. [3] Such instances, if proliferated on a larger scale, can dismantle existing taboos for their inclusion in the mainstream society.

The ripples of the woes.

Despite the passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, Act, 2013 which prohibits the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without adequate protective equipment, the current scenario is not satisfactory. Apart from resorting to chronic alcoholism to endure the woes of their reality which heightens their health risks, it is an issue where economic compulsions, political mistrust and caste structure blends in a myriad hues to turn into a conundrum, as Arkaja Singh from the Centre for Policy Research remarked:

“There is an interplay of caste, poor public engineering standards, workers’ availability and poorly specified infrastructure.” [4]

Besides caste and gender-based stratification, their continued confinement in this chain for decades hinders rational and progressive thoughts of rehabilitation for alternative job opportunities. Moreover, being deemed as “untouchables” in many circles, their rehabilitated professions are not accepted by the caste-conscious masses. For instance, in Rajasthan, rehabilitated manual scavengers engaged in dairy business were ostracized in the market economic setup.

Above all, their constant exposure to poisonous gases like hydrogen sulphide and depleting oxygen levels in the sewers increases the life risks of their immune-deficient bodies, resulting in frequent deaths of many victims. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, since January 2017, 123 workers have died while doing acts of manual scavenging. [4] In spite of this, the assiduous labour of these veiled masses and their voiceless shrieks are yet to reverberate amidst the political humdrums to make a difference to these differentiated sections.

Mitigating political apathy: A ray of hope.

In a state of oblivion and uncertainty to make both ends meet, these manual scavengers are further frustrated by the insouciance of the ruling class and lack of proper legal documentation. Though a slew of policies have been aimed at uplifting their socio-economic position, most of them have proved redundant, thereby precipitating in the same apathetic attitude.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, though expected to reduce the prospects of this act, has further necessitated such tasks in areas of water shortage and difficult terrain. Consequently, their stagnant status gets reinvigorated over decades. The concessional loans advocated under the Self Employment Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (SRMS) has benefitted only 252 victims so far. [5] Lack of a proactive approach of the governmental agencies, underutilization of resources allocated under each scheme and political blame game further complicates this abstruse issue. Hence, mitigating political apathy to ensure active involvement of community level officers and management to spread awareness and mobilize them in skill development activities is the only array of sunshine in this impending morass.

The Toddler Steps.

Mr Coen Kompier, Senior Specialist International Labour Standards has noted the issue of manual scavenging to be “Discrimination in occupation”. The social and economic stigmas imposed on these masses tarnish their image to a further inferior status. What is needed is a holistic and concerted effort of the NGOs, civil societies, interest groups and the government to emerge from this abyss of darkness.

Individual initiatives and mass awareness regarding the need to overcome their plight can create effective repercussions in the political environment to surge over the crisis. Rights Education Development Centre (READ), on NGO based in Tamil Nadu mainly focuses on mobilizing the manual scavengers as leaders in Sangathans, for education of their children, creating awareness on the issue of untouchability, building courage and showing the community possibilities of alternative occupation. [3] The Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, another NGO, is also imparting vocational training to the manual scavengers in the fields of stitching, tailoring and so on for their rehabilitation, besides constructing hygienic washrooms in rural areas,

Such sparse efforts, if amplified into a comprehensive scheme, under a responsive and accountable government can truly be instrumental in metamorphosing these toddler steps into an effective and successful combat against this inhumanity.

The Spectrum of Perspectives.

It’s often said that our perspectives change our world. What is now considered as caste-entrenched rhetoric due to political equivocation and lack of stringent legal enforcement, can be metamorphosed into an unexplored sector of the economy with proper governmental management and efforts. For example, Mexico adopted the ecological sanitation model which eliminated the need for manual scavenging. In Malaysia too, sewage treatment has evolved in a phased manner from primitive systems to more mechanical and automated systems which is said to have “increased the expectations regarding environmental standards and the skill level in the design, construction;” as reported by the Centre for Policy Research in 2017.

This highlights the possibility, feasibility, and adaptability which countries can encompass when coupled with strategic governmental planning. On one hand, it improves the technological level of the country while mobilising alienated masses in economically productive activities on the other hand, through requisite skill development initiatives and literacy drives.

Hence, the bigoted societal taboos should dissolve in this new age of economic advancement and professionalism. It is high time to strike at the chords of this self-perpetuating cycle of marginalization to harness the optimum human potential. Only if the perspective of the government and the masses changes from that of apathy and caste-ridden injustices into one of egalitarianism and human dignity, can we introspect which end of the balance weighs heavier – the hegemony of caste and poverty or the economics of optimization?

By Shreya Ghosh
Senior Secondary Student,St Joseph’s Convent Chandannagar, West Bengal


1. cavengers-are-there-in-india-official-data-is-self-contradictory-1880197.html





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