Millennium Post

Breaking the curse of manual scavenging

Breaking the curse of manual scavenging
While a law was in place prohibiting the practice, it was rarely implemented. The government has now come up with an amended law – with more teeth. We look at a few individuals who walked their way out – and what they all agree on is that the government help was zilch. Is someone listening in the corridors of power?

‘Ram Nagar, Shahadara metro station jaane waaley – chalo chalo chalo,’ yells Meena, calling out to passengers headed for those areas. Meena’s voice might not be as audible as those of her male counterparts driving battery-powered e-rickshaws, but it is almost impossible to miss confidence in it amid the cacophony in east Delhi’s Nand Nagri area. She is among a handful of former manual scavengers to have graduated to a life of a little – a lot, to believe Meena – dignity.

It’s people like Meena the new Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is meant for. To take them out of the indignity of manually removing human excreta from dry toilets, cleaning the sewage and carrying the waste on their head and discard it in huge open trenches on the city’s outskirts.

Having ‘liberated’ herself from this dirty everyday chore long before parliament passed the Act on 7 September, Meena today says: ‘A life of dignity is all that I wanted. Earning money is important but how long can one live without an identity. I did not want to be called a maila safai karmachari (manual scavenger) or a jamadarni (garbage collector) all my life.'

In her late 20s, Meena lives in Nand Nagri – her home being a 10x10 room covered with a tin sheet – with her husband, Mukesh, a daily wage labourer, and daughter Sonia, 4. The room is adorned with several toys, photographs of Sonia and has a refrigerator and a 21-inch TV which Meena got from owners of households where she cleaned toilets (without water connections) till about six years ago. Like others from the Balmiki community, Meena, eldest of five sisters, was forced into the undignified job.

‘My in-laws and husband, who also worked as manual scavengers, could barely sustain themselves. I did not have an option but to get into that disgusting job as well. And if the trauma of cleaning toilets and removing human excreta with my hands wasn’t enough, I was also denied the right to be treated as a human being – my name did not matter and my profession became my sole identity. Whether it was my mother-in-law or my friends or my neighbours or me, all of us were called ‘jamadarni’,’ says Meena, trying hard to hide her anger.

Like others in the community, Meena says she too had become accustomed to people covering their noses and instantly getting aside at the sight of her walking on the road: ‘More than the work, people’s attitude made me sick. I desperately wanted to get out of this profession.’

With help of NGOs, and without any help from the government, manual scavenging is now history for Meena. Between 8 am and 12.30 pm, Meena is out ferrying passengers in her new e-rickshaw around Shahadara area in trans-Yamuna east Delhi. ‘I drive when my daughter is in school and return once she is home. She is too young to be left alone and needs my care,’ Meena says, picking up Sonia in her arms.  At home, the vehicle is then put to charge till her husband gets back from his shift; Mukesh drives it from 5.30 pm till about 9 pm. From a negligible monthly earning, her take-home from driving the e-rickshaw is now about ‘3,000. ‘That is a significant accomplishment,’ Meena says, beaming.

Down to Earth

Shrishti Pandey

Shrishti Pandey

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