Manual Scavengers: The caretakers of our environment

"In India, a man is not a scavenger by birth irrespective of the question of whether he does scavenging or not." – Dr B,R Ambedkar

Manual Scavengers

Can you suggest the most degrading practise of untouchability in our country? Manual Scavenging is regarded as inhumane and a violation of basic human rights. It constitutes problems that encompass domains of health and occupation, human rights, social justice, gender, caste and human dignity. 

According to the National Survey, 50 thousand families still work as manual scavengers in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of our country. Manual Scavenging, one of the most pathetic practices that exist in the country today. Manual scavenging or the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, handling and disposing human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. The human waste is collected from the pit manually by the scavengers. This process involves human beings carrying loads of excreta on their head to locations that are kilometres away from the pit. Manual Scavengers use basic tools such as a bucket lined with a sack and a handle. In most rural parts of India, there is no proper sewage system. The discrimination based on caste has always attracted such activities to exist. The lower section of the population still earns their livelihood by cleaning pits and sewers. 

The existence of manual scavengers working in sewers, septic tanks and manholes in our country, with an alarming rise in deaths of these workers is an open secret in India, despite being outlawed in 2013. More than 56.4 % of India’s urban homes are connected to sewer lines while only 36.7% of rural areas have drainage that requires manual scavenging. Most of the scavengers are members of the marginal caste. Such caste is regarded as lower caste and is often excluded from migrating to a better occupation. Scavenging work is seen as part of their natural occupation. The unsanitary conditions they work in often lead to mental and physical health issues. 

Most of the manual scavengers are socially discriminated right from their birth as if discrimination is their birthright. They are regarded as untouchables. Children are also forced to occupy the same work as their parents. It is considered as a cultural occupation for lower castes. Scavengers, without any regard to personal safety or health, enter the sewers to clean the septic waste generated by all of us, allowing us to enjoy a safe and clean environment. The job of manual scavenger in India involves working in extremely risky conditions, no safety gears are used by them. This is simply an act to push people inside a toxic gas chamber without wearing any safety mask. Not only the people engaged in such occupation deal with health issues, but they also experience the collapse of the family’s emotional relationship and their economic instability. 

Legal Pronouncements

In 2013, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act has put an end to the practice of any form of manual cleaning, disposing of, carrying and handling of human waste. According to the act, it is an offence to employ people as manual scavengers to clean insanitary latrines, Employ people to clean sewers and septic tanks without protective gear. Supreme Court has ordered the abolition of manual scavenging and asked the government to provide financial assistance and rehabilitation to those who have lost family members. Despite changing provisions in the law by the Supreme Court, manual scavenging remains unabated in India

In 2003, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) filed a petition in the Supreme Court, asking for the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 to be implemented. Earlier only dry latrines related manual scavenging was only covered. Article 21 was enlarged unto an umbrella for all sorts of civic workers. Various Petitioners drew the courts attention to manual scavengers and sewer deaths in Gujrat High Court, Delhi High Court. The state agencies paid Rs 10 lakhs for each case of sewer death, this principle for compensation was established by the court making the state responsible. 

Manual Scavengers are often exposed to toxic gases present inside the pit, sewer, manholes etc which they are unaware of. Methane, Ammonia, Co2 and other toxic gases are inhaled by them. The gas is also associated with visual disparity, unconsciousness and other harmful diseases. Despite the introduction of several mechanized systems for sewage cleaning, human intervention process persists. There are thousands of deaths happening each year in several parts of India because of manual scavenging. Activists estimate the death count to be an average of 100 people every year.  

Under the national cleanliness mission, “Swachh Bharat Mission” launched by the NDA government in India. The estimated cost of implementation of the Swachh Bharat plan based on unit and per capita costs for its various components is Rs 62,009 Crore. The Government had declared installation of flush toilets replacing dry toilets in rural areas of the country; more than 4 million sanitary toilets have been built across the country since the beginning of the campaign. The main objective of the campaign was to eradicate manual scavenging and elimination of open defecation. But has the life of a manual scavenger changed over the decade?

The Delhi Jal Board began the process of acquiring mechanized sewer cleaning machines in 2017 to eliminate manual scavenging in the city. A specially fabricated sewer machine for cleaning sewer lines in narrow streets or lanes is already introduced by the Delhi Jal Board. This machine is still not prevalent in other states of the nation. Even after the mechanical revolution in our country, the practice of manual scavenging is being opted out. In India, each state shall have an adequate amount of sewer cleaning machines which could eliminate manual scavenging across the nation. The funds collected for technological advancements in this industry are not allocated properly as the manual scavengers still exist. 

Swachh Bharat Mission

Under the national scheme of “swachh bharat Abhiyan”, the government claims to have constructed over 95 million toilets around the nation. Under this scheme, the sanitation strategy is the conversion of insanitary latrines into pour-flush latrines, community toilets, public toilets and solid waste management. The plan ensured that no one engaged in the practice of open defecation, No unsanitary toilets to be constructed and the conversion of pit latrine to provide rehabilitation to the condition of Manual Scavengers. 

The ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ an initiative by the Modi government, more than Rs 18,00 crore every year is spent on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. In a response to an RTI query, it was found that the government had spent Rs 530 crore on the publicity for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on TV and print media during the same years. On the other hand, a manual scavenger earns Rs 500 per month without using proper safety equipment and putting their lives in danger.  

The deteriorating condition of manual scavengers is seen to be improved in the eyes of the government. The toilets under the SBM ( Swachh Bharat Mission) Urban scheme is to construct a two structure toilet. The superstructure which includes the pan and water closet and the substructure which includes organic treatment system. Whenever a sewerage system is available within 30 meters from the proposed household toilet, only the toilet superstructure may be constructed and connected to the existing sewerage system. Whereas, if a sewerage system is not available within 30 meters from the proposed site, in addition to the superstructure toilet, an onsite treatment system such as bio-digester, bio tanks, septic tanks should also be constructed for the collection, treatment and disposal of sewage. 

While rural toilets are being built, there remains a much-required angle towards constructing sewer pipelines for the effective management of the waste. Only the installation of pipelines can end the requirement to physically collect human waste. The alternative opted by the government involves a substructure toilet system viz. an organic pit in which the micro-organisms are added inside the compost chamber which transforms the human waste into manure and water, and they multiply accordingly. However, the remaining sites have septic tanks with soak pits and single pits, both needing manual scavenging. Hence, it remains to be seen for how long will it take for the manual scavengers to be liberated from their disgusting and deadly occupation? 

Indian Railways

Manual Scavenging is being indirectly promoted by Indian Railways since the beginning. The sewage system of the Indian Railways was a very basic functioning process. The human waste which was directly pushed out of the train accumulated on the railway tracks. Manual Scavengers were appointed to clean the tracks manually appointed through the third party by the Indian Railways. However, each day 12,000 passengers travel by train in India, the toilets are repeatedly used and the excrement keeps falling on to the tracks. If the human is not cleaning this filth, then who is?

The abovementioned situation existed in Indian Railways earlier. Now the excrement is not picked up by manual scavengers nor they are recruited by the third party to collect human waste from the track. After the prohibition of the employment of manual scavengers in India by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, Indian Railways also prohibited the same. According to the affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court by Indian Railways in 2012, only 504 bio-toilets were installed 

In 2005, Indian Railways said that it did not have any technique whatsoever to stop the excrement from falling on the tracks from the toilet in railway coaches. As of now, the Indian Railways had improvised the existing functioning of the toilets. 

The Indian Railways installed bio-toilets or a small-scale sewage-treatment system in every coach running across the railway. The installation of Bio tanks is a major step taken by the Railways to eradicate the employment of manual scavengers in the whole nation. Bio tanks are installed in each toilet of the coach of the train. The tank has two parts, the compost chamber where the bacteria digest human excreta leaving behind water and methane. The disinfected water left behind is let out on the tracks.

Conclusion

A more community-centric method should be adopted by the government. Steps should be taken by the citizens to remove social stigma amongst different communities. People regard such civic workers as untouchable because of their work. Therefore, society is not ready to accept and include them in community activities resulting in no job opportunities for them. 

 

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Rohan Gupta 
on 29 June 2020
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