“Hundreds of thousands of impoverished "low caste" Indians are being forced to clean human excreta from dry toilets and open drains, despite a ban on the discriminatory and undignified practice”, reports Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its recent publication in August 2014. It is a shameful truth that reflects the discrimination practised by society and the state towards one of the most vulnerable sections of the population, the Dalits.
Manual Scavenging is not only dehumanising but also dangerous. According to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 80 per cent of the manual scavengers die before they turn 60 because of health problems and accidents. In the last decade, 98 manual scavengers have died in Gujarat. This figure was gathered by Safai Kamdar Vikas Nigam, in reply to an RTI query and was published by the Times Of India in April 2014.
Despite legislations prohibiting employment of manual scavengers and demolition of dry toilets, the 'Houselisting and Housing Census 2011' data in March, 2012 shows a bleak picture. Its estimation of insanitary or dry latrines in the country is close to 26 lakhs. Though there is no credible data on the exact count of manual scavengers in the country, various surveys and sources have suggested that there are approximately 11 lakhs manual scavengers in India.
Legislations banning the practice alone cannot change the social realities. There are number of legislations to eliminate manual scavenging like The Civil Rights Act, 1955; the Construction of Dry Latrines and Employment of Manual Scavengers (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the recently enacted Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. However, the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging persist.
Our society has to challenge and break free from the internalised caste hierarchy, empower the minds of the manual scavengers and change the attitude of the state.
Attitude of the society
Manual scavenging is a manifestation of the rigid caste system in India. Manual scavengers belong to one of the Dalit sub-castes and are considered lowest in the caste hierarchy. The society, time and again has treated Dalits as untouchables and reserved the humiliating job of cleaning excreta only for them thus reinforcing the idea of untouchability based on occupation. A child born into a family of manual scavengers is denied the basic rights guaranteed under the constitution. Manual scavenging as an occupation is passed on from one generation to another.
In the rare occasion when a manual scavenger challenges the social structure and his position in it; s/he is threatened by members of higher castes, and ostracized to the extent that s/he is denied food entry to communal land to feed their livestock, and other facilities necessary for his survival. The community in which the manual scavenger lives does not allow them to break free from their caste based roles.
Lack of political will of the State
Government institutions like municipal corporations, village councils, railways and defence are the largest violators of the law and perpetuate the problem by continuing to recruit manual scavengers and failing to demolish dry toilets.
Approximately 43,000 railway coaches are engaged in the passenger service, and there are about 1, 72,000 insanitary toilets which discharge the human excreta on the railway tracks that require the services of manual scavengers. Intrigued, the high court ordered an inspection of bio-toilets led by a team of senior advocates P S Narasimha and Rajiv Nanda. In their status report to the court, the advocates described work on bio-toilet installation as being extremely slow and criticised the Ministry of Railway’s timid target of installing only 500 bio-toilets.
A recent survey report by Manav Garima, a community based organisation fighting against dry toilets and practice of manual scavenging have brought to light the existence of dysfunctional toilets under the aegis of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). Located in slums, these toilets do not have proper sewerage system, water facility etc. Also, not every household has a separate toilet. People are forced to defecate in the open. The survey which looked at few sample areas found out that there were 126 areas where manual scavenging was practised and there were 188 dry latrines. To make the situation worse, AMC built 30 new dry toilets in the Nagorivad area of Ahmedabad.
A survey conducted in a few villages of Dhule in Maharashtra, by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan showed that 162 women and 90 men were hired by panchayats and municipal corporations to manually clean toilets and open defecation areas.
Challenges faced by people and breaking the silence
People who continue cleaning human excreta do it involuntarily under great social pressure, poverty, illiteracy and often because of the extreme atrocities they experience when they seek alternative job opportunities.
As reported in the Human Rights Watch publication, the manual scavengers face resistance not only from the members of higher castes but often from local officials like Pradhans who refuse to give manual scavengers any in
The fear of demanding a new life and accepting the humiliation as fate is the greatest challenge. There are many schemes and legislations to provide education, alternative job opportunities, trainings to manual scavengers, but these benefits and opportunities alone cannot change their situation unless every single manual scavenger refuses to clean other’s excreta. Until then, when a manuals scavenger denies cleaning the dirt, there is another manual scavenger ready to do his work. Hence, it is crucial to make manual scavengers aware that such dehumanising work is illegal and by mobilising them their voice can be made to be heard not as an individual but as a group.
Role of Social Movements towards defending the right’s of manual scavengers
In contrast to constitutional safeguards, some civil society movements have been able to bring to the forefront the massive discrimination faced by manual scavengers in India.
Safai Karamchari Andolan
Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a national movement working towards eradicating manual scavenging, by organising and mobilising the community around the issues of dignity and rights, accompanied by strategic advocacy and legal interventions. SKA’s efforts helped to uncover the fact that government departments including Railways, Defence, Judiciary and Education are violators of the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court by SKA and 18 other civil society organisations in 2003. As a result, the Supreme Court gave strict orders to all the states and central ministries to address the issue of manual scavenging. In 2010, for the first time 23 hearings were conducted in the state of Haryana and the act was enforced and 16 members were taken into custody for violating the law and employing manual scavengers.
Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan
Launched by Jan Sahas Development Society, the “Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan” is a national campaign for dignity and elimination of manual scavenging. The Abhiyan has liberated 11,000 manual scavengers in Madhya Pradesh. By organising sanghatans or community-based organisations, it has mobilised manual scavengers and empowered them to oppose all kinds of discrimination. Liberated and empowered, manual scavengers have taken the lead in putting an end to this practice. The campaign has been taken to other villages and states. In December 2012, the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, also organised a two-month long march ‘The Maila Mukti Yatra’ across 18 Indian states that liberated thousands of manual scavengers.
Similar success stories have been showcased by other national and local level movements which have successfully spread awareness and empowered manual scavengers and helped them fight against their own fears and challenge the rigid social structure and government institutions that are responsible for depriving them of their rights to live in dignity.
Journey towards changing mindsets
Manual scavenging is “shame of the nation” said Mahatma Gandhi. The fight to end manual scavenging is more than one individual’s struggle; it is a struggle of the nation. Social movements have shown positive change by bringing people together. For a change to happen at a large scale, it is important for all the segments of the society, including civil society organisations and the state, to join hands and fight against the violation of human dignity.
Legislations and schemes prohibiting manual scavenging, as modernising India’s sanitation, are important. But for effective implementation of these, mindsets of people, society and state needs to undergo change. Synergised efforts towards challenging the caste structure, changing the mindsets of people involved in scavenging and people employing them as scavengers can make a significant positive difference.
By Abhishikta Roy