Though India has made significant progress in human development, there exists a community which makes its living by carrying human excreta and is forced to service the community's sanitation needs because of an identity based on their caste. Manual scavenging is an act of manually cleaning and disposing of human and animal excreta from dry latrines, sewers and streets. Manual scavengers by and large belong to the most disadvantaged of the Dalit sub-castes; they face discrimination even within the Dalit community; it's been an age-old daily routine for this community.
Manual scavenging is not just a caste-based but also a gender-based occupation. Of the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, about 95% of them are women. Households with dry latrines prefer women over men to clean the excreta in part because they are paid less. Most women are paid only as little as Rs 20 a month along with a meal everyday for cleaning a dry toilet.
Apart from the social stigma, the work of scavenging is poorly paid and causes life-long health risks and problems which can sometimes turn fatal for those who risk entering manholes without proper protection. Manual scavengers are also prone to skin and respiratory tract infections, tuberculosis, malaria, and dengue among various other illnesses. It is estimated that more than 600 sewer workers die every year.
Their families also suffer because of the stigma associated with sanitation work, its health consequences and the losses suffered by the family in the event of death. The children of manual scavengers pay a heavy price. A lot of children who enroll in schools drop out at a very early age, often because they face discrimination in the school premises at the hands of fellow students and sometimes even staff and teachers. There have been countless instances where children are made to sit in a corner in the classrooms with minimal interaction with teachers and fellow students. Some children are made to clean the school toilets instead of attending classes; this leads to manual scavengers' children having no option except to do what their parents have been doing as they do not have the education for other forms of employment. Even when they do possess the qualification to be employed for a better job, they are not considered fit for the same due to their background.
Manual scavenging is a form of forced labor because people enter into this practice without their choice and cannot leave easily if they wish to do so. The main reason for the continuance of this practice is that the manual scavengers depend upon their employers for a lot of resources. Anyone who tries to leave this has to a face a lot of threats from the community. This leaves them with no choice but to return to their work. Some of those who are able to find alternate employment also have to face a lot of harassment.
In 1993, the Government of India enacted the "Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act" which prohibited the employment of manual scavengers for dry latrines and also provided for the construction of dry toilets, that is, toilets that operate without a flush. It provided for imprisonment of up to one year and a fine. This was followed by the "Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013", which acknowledged the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers. In 2014, the Supreme Court gave directives to end manual scavenging. "In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die," remarked the Supreme Court of India in September 2019.
The government has to ensure that this form of modern slavery is eradicated. Movements like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have consistently attempted to revolutionize the image of sanitation in the country. The government has brought in technology and policy changes to eliminate such demeaning practices. There is still a long way to go as the complete eradication of the practice of manual scavenging requires innovative technology, better financial support to sanitation workers and fool-proof protective gear. This, coupled with rehabilitation programs, will offer alternative employment options. Education and providing requisite training for alternate employment opportunities will uplift the lives of the children belonging to such families. In some states, successful campaigns have effectively ended the practice, empowering a large number of individuals to live healthier, more dignified lives and find work that is more satisfying. Such campaigns should be launched in each state and nationally to highlight the ongoing practice of manual scavenging and to seek the most effective way to end it. Those involved in manual scavenging should be made aware of their rights and advised on how to leave this profession.
The public and authorities have to be sensitized towards the core of the issue and see the system as dehumanizing and unconstitutional. Bringing awareness to the public is inevitable in order to discourage degrading occupations like that of manual scavenging.
There are nearly 8 lakh dry latrines in India with UP, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal having 80% of the dry latrines. Every family must have a lavatory which can be cleaned mechanically. Every family must have access to public toilets. Maybe it's time we also ponder on our societal responsibilities.
(Vijayasai Reddy is Parliamentary Party Leader and National General Secretary of YSRCP.)
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