At the heart of the manual scavenging issue lies the deeply entrenched casteist structure of Indian society.
At the heart of the manual scavenging issue lies the deeply entrenched casteist structure of Indian society.iPleaders

Despite All Our Progress, Manual Scavenging Remains A Blight On The Face Of The Nation

"Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or sewer or in a septic tank or a pit."

The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993

The sinister practice of manual scavenging continues to haunt India even almost 76 years after gaining independence. Despite the enactment of the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, and subsequent amendments, thousands of lives still suffer from the inhumane burden of manual scavenging. Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO dedicated to eradicating this evil, estimated in the year 2021, that around 2.6 million dry toilets still require the labour of manual scavengers. According to recently published Government data brought to light by The Wire, between 2018 and 2023, 339 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in India. Of course, this figure does not include the hundreds of lives that have not been accounted for. Throughout history, the lives of manual scavengers have been deemed as dispensable and no government wants to lose political mileage by reflecting the true death toll.

At the heart of the manual scavenging issue lies the deeply entrenched casteist structure of Indian society. If you are one of those who believe that casteism does not exist in India or that it is a thing of the past, then you are likely a person from a high caste who hasn't bothered to look beyond the surface. Almost all those engaged in this deplorable practice belong to Dalit communities, the historically oppressed and marginalized groups relegated to the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy. Throughout history, the Brahminical social order has earmarked the most “polluting” tasks, such as removing human excreta, to lower castes. There is evide­nce of it in ancient texts such as the Nar­a­da Samhita and the Vajasayeni Samhita. The notion of caste-designated work perpetuates social stigmas, reinforcing the belief that these individuals are 'untouchables' and inherently unclean.

Within this caste-based horror, it is a lesser-known fact that gender inequality compounds this misery. Out of the 1.2 million Indians affected by this practice, shockingly, 95% to 98% of manual scavengers are women. They are employed to clean dry latrines inside households while the men are tasked with the more arduous work of cleaning the sewers and septic tanks. These women receive lesser wages compared to their male counterparts and face social ostracization if they dare to leave this degrading occupation. Since they come from communities where there is an acute food shortage, they cannot afford to leave their jobs no matter how demeaning the practice or how meager the wages. Women who leave this occupation are segregated from participating in village functions and religious ceremonies, depriving them of their basic human rights. Also once someone’s identity as a manual scavenger is fostered, it becomes difficult to obtain a job in any other sector. The ill effects of this occupation also spill onto the next generation. Children of manual scavengers are ostracized in the classroom by their teachers and other upper-caste students. Institulsioned casteism pervades every facet of their lives.

A woman manually cleaning toilets
A woman manually cleaning toilets
At the heart of the manual scavenging issue lies the deeply entrenched casteist structure of Indian society.
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Over the years, India has made several attempts to address manual scavenging through legislative measures. The Constitution's Articles 14, 15, and 17 aimed to dismantle caste-based discrimination and untouchability. Committees like the Malkani Committee (1957) and Pandya Committee (1968) proposed guidelines for the rehabilitation and welfare of manual scavengers. In 1989, the Sub-Committee of the Taskforce estimated that there were over 72,000 dry latrines in the country, leading to the launch of the Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Low-Cost Sanitation for Liberation of Scavengers (ILCS) to convert dry latrines into pit latrines. In 1993, India enacted a dedicated law to combat manual scavenging, primarily targeting dry latrines. However, the law had its limitations, and in 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act expanded its scope to include sewers and septic tanks. Yet, the definition of manual scavengers under the second act contains loopholes.

By making the definition contingent on the use of 'protective gear,' the act unintentionally perpetuates the very practice it seeks to eliminate. It is not the definition of the act that is problematic but the attached explanation. The provided explanation goes on to state that anyone employed to clean excreta using 'protective gear' or other devices specified by the Central Government shall not be classified as a 'manual scavenger.' This exclusion within the definition undermines the very essence of the act, contradicting its stated purpose in the preamble of rectifying historical injustices and indignities suffered. By making the definition dependent on the use of 'protective gear,' the explanation inadvertently perpetuates manual scavenging instead of prohibiting it. Additionally, the definition overlooks the plight of other sanitation workers, including those engaged in toilet cleaning for private and domestic purposes, as well as bio-medical waste handlers.

Rehabilitation of manual scavengers was one of the core objectives of the 2013 act, but it remains elusive. The required survey to identify affected families, as mandated under Section 11, has not been adequately carried out. Families of sanitation workers who died in the line of duty have not received the compensation they were promised, reflecting the authorities' indifference to their plight. The dehumanizing nature of manual scavenging takes an irreparable toll on the workers' physical and mental health. Exposure to noxious gases leads to gastrointestinal, respiratory, and reproductive issues. The average life expectancy of a sanitation worker is tragically low, with many dying before the age of 40. Alcoholism is rampant among male workers, for him it serves as a desperate escape from the harsh realities of their work.

At the heart of the manual scavenging issue lies the deeply entrenched casteist structure of Indian society.
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The continued existence of manual scavenging, in spite of being a banned practice, is a damning indictment of India's failure to dismantle casteism and uphold the principles of equality and dignity. The struggle to eradicate this abhorrent practice must be intensified, with a comprehensive and determined approach. India must address caste-based discrimination head-on and disassociate manual scavenging from a particular section of society.

Policymakers must establish a National Commission for Manual Scavengers to address specific offenses and serve justice. Vigilance Officers appointed by the government must oversee contractors' compliance with safety protocols and the provision of necessary protective gear. Sewer and drain cleaning mechanisms should be prioritized with increased investment and research.

In a world where robots are attending conferences and in a country where billion-dollar companies are investing in its digital future, the nation cannot ignore the primitive and degrading practice of manual scavenging. Together, we must unite to banish this dark blot on our collective conscience and ensure that we uphold our Constitution which states that every citizen deserves respect and dignity of life.

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