Suffocation and Stigma. The Ugly Truth of Manual Scavenging in India

Suffocation and Stigma. The Ugly Truth of Manual Scavenging in India

“They called our men and said “If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up.” They said, “We will not let you live in peace.” We were afraid.” Threats such as the ones above are one of the main features that result in the continuation of manual scavenging in the country. This is coupled with the fact that police authorities refuse to register the complaints of people owing to their own inherent caste based biases.

July 11, 2020

Suffocation and Stigma. The Ugly Truth of Manual Scavenging in India

On 2nd July 2020, four men between the ages of 20-24 died of asphyxiation when they entered an open sewage drain which was unclogged in Thoothukudi. Tamil Nadu, India. Out of the four youths, three worked as manual scavengers, the third joined because of the lack of income owing to the COVID lockdown. Manual scavenging is a form of labour that requires an individual to manually clean up human excreta. The labour of manual scavenging is given to an individual on the basis of their subjective caste based identity. Generally the practice is carried out without any form of protective gear which in turn has severe implications on the health of an individual. Health impacts of manual scavenging include constant nausea, severe skin infections, diarrhea, vomoitting and carbon monoxide poisoning, the health impact being so severe that it has often resulted in death, as in the above mentioned case.

In 1993 the practice of manual scavenging was outlawed in the country through “The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act”. Furthermore in 2013, “THE PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT AS MANUAL SCAVENGERS AND THEIR REHABILITATION ACT” was passed which criminalises the employment of people to clean human waste. Failure to follow the act allows for imprisonment for a period of upto 5 years. In spite of these legislations which are in place, the act continues to remain prevalent till date.

In 2019, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE)  released information stating that there have been 282 deaths of sanitation workers in the country between 2016 and November 2019. The sanitation worker was said to have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. The figures shared by the MSJE were determined on the basis of FIRs which were filed by the police in the respective states. Manual Scavenger Activists however estimate that the death rates were dramatically higher than what was revealed by the MSJE. Organisations such as the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA)  which was established to work towards the eradication of manual scavenging estimates that the number of deaths could be much higher than the official figures estimating that the death rate could actually be 1,760 in the same period.

Manual scavenging is a practice that remains equally prominent in both rural and urban areas. A study done by the Human Rights Watch discusses the prevalence of Manual Scavenging in both areas within various parts of the country. In rural areas, women who belong to the lower caste communities are forced to clean the dry latrines of people from upper caste communities. In the report, a woman who remains unidentified says “I clean my area, these two lanes. I clean twice a day because it is so dirty. I sweep the roads and I clean the drains. It is extremely dirty because the houses here flush the excrement from the toilets directly into the drains. I have to pick out the excreta, along with any garbage from the drains. I have to do it. If I do not, I will lose my job.” These women are not given any form of protection while they work. They are not even paid their due diligence for their labour. Women who work on manual scavenging are repaid by being given some day vegetables and stale rotis for their work. Many women who have been forced into this form of labour experience severe health issues and skin infections because of manual scavenging.

In the scenario wherein a woman refuses to comply and practice manual scavenging, she and her family are threatened by people in the village. They are threatened with violence, to be evicted from their homes and losing the right to graze. In November 2012, when a woman named Gangashri along with 12 other women in Parigama village in Mainpuri district Uttar Pradesh refused to clean the latrines of the upper caste men they were threatened with violence. 20 to 30 upper caste men from the community confronted the manual scavenging community. Gangashri told the Human Rights Watch that “They called our men and said “If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up.” They said, “We will not let you live in peace.” We were afraid.” Threats such as the ones above are one of the main features that result in the continuation of manual scavenging in the country. This is coupled with the fact that police authorities refuse to register the complaints of people owing to their own inherent caste based biases.

Another reason for the continuity of manual scavenging is the fact that in spite of the educational advancements of people belonging to the caste which is ascribed to do manual scavenging, they are not given any gainful form of employment. “I studied commerce and banking, but I couldn’t find work. Even though I am educated, the panchayat hired me to clean toilets because I am from this community.” says Kailash from  Nhavi village in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district.

In many instances, children belonging to lower caste communities face discrimination within educational institutions themselves. On 5th July 2014, parents belonging to the Valmiki community from Ratanpur village in Surendranagar district of Gujarat came together to confront the teachers of a government school when they learnt that their children were being forced to come early to school and clean latrines. Instead of any positive action being taken, the school authorities were beaten up and chased from the premises. When the children returned to the school, they were punished for complaining to their parents.  A Navsarjan social worker in Surendranagar district, says to the Human Rights watch, “The parents learned that their children were being asked to come early to school to clean the toilets. When a group of parents approached the school authorities to complain, they were beaten and chased away from the school premises. When the children returned to the school, each child that had complained to their parents, was physically punished. They were lifted off the ground by their ears 50 times each. We have filed a complaint with the district probation officer, district collector, development officer, social welfare minister, and education minister. They have yet to take any action.”

In another similar case, Seema from Aastha which is a small town in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh found out that her daughter was being forced to sweep up the school. She realised this because they would return home from school dirty. She told the Human Rights Watch that “I learned my daughters were being made to sweep the floors in school because I would give them a bath, but they would return dirty, with dust in their hair. I went to the school and asked why my children were being made to sweep. First, the teacher said—“They are not being singled out.” Then, she said, “What do you expect? Your caste is responsible for this work.”

This is the manner in which institutionalised forms of violence and oppression have allowed for the continuity of this form of caste-based violence.

“The question is not of symbolism. Symbolism is necessary at times,” Paul Divakar from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said to Down To Earth.

“There are two things here. We want to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging in India. And then, there is a whole government programme called the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan on which crores are spent annually. Swachh Bharat is mostly reliant on Dalit women sweepers. Total mechanisation of the process of cleaning waste is a prospect that is still far away in India. Till then, it will be Dalits, mostly women who would be shouldering the burden,” he said “We should see to it that Dalits, who have been forced into cleaning sewers for no other reason than the sanction of the caste system, are accorded dignity of labour like those working for cleaning waste in other countries. And here, the Prime Minister needs to set an example in breaking these age old caste prejudices by the total elimination of this inhuman practice of manual Scavenging. Otherwise it remains a great optics but nothing more.”

Action is being taken by several organisations to work towards the eradication of this social evil. In 2019 prior to the general elections, manual scavengers in association with SKA released the first ever Manual Scavengers Manifesto wherein they listed out their specific demands for their community. Following are some of the salient features of the Manual Scavengers Manifesto;

  • An apology by the Prime Minister for the prevalence of violence against manual scavengers and the lack of apathy from the governing bodies.
  • A unique right to live card which gives five freedoms namely, freedom from manual scavenging, rehabilitation in non-sanitation sector, right to live with dignity, right to healthcare and right to education
  • 1% of the union budget to be exclusively allocated towards the rehabilitation of sanitation workers.
  • A separate parliamentary session on manual scavenging deaths and rehabilitation efforts

Manual Scavenging as a practice continues to remain prevalent till date in spite of laws which declare that forcing people into manual scavenging is a punishable offence. Major issues which results in the perpetuation of manual scavenging arises due to a lack of awareness regarding the rights of manual scavengers, a failure in the implementation of the law by democratic institutions such as police stations and judicial bodies and the continues perpetuation through intimidation by people in both the village level and in educational institutions.

While the current government’s Swach Bharat Abhiyan campaign which attempts to build toilets within rural areas as well as the Delhi government’s 2019 initiative to provide sewer cleaning machines in urban areas do contribute to the eradication of manual scavenging, the case of the four deaths in Tamil Nadu are a sign that we continue to remain far from the goal of eradication of manual scavenging. To truly eradicate  the issue, we need to raise more awareness about the evil of manual scavenging, ensure that educational institutions and people who go against the 2013 bill are strictly punished and that the demands made in the Manual Scavenger manifesto are granted.

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