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Manual scavenging: A sordid tale

India has over 2.5 lakh manual scavengers despite the banned practice

Manual scavenging: A sordid tale

Honestly, I don't know what's worse. The fact that India still doesn't have a functional sewage system that can do away with manual scavenging or the fact that employment options are so few that people are still forced to clean up shit for a living! So much so that there are 53,000 manual scavengers in just 12 states and the numbers have been rising in the last 4 years. Some accounts peg the number of manual scavengers at a staggering 2.5 lakh. Manual scavenging that has been banned since 1993 continues unabated and has caused a death every 5 days since 2017. This sordid reality should be a matter of shame to a country that is considered to be one of the fastest growing economies of the world. We have sent a mission to Mars but can't get the manual scavenger out of our shit.

We cringe at the pictures of manual scavengers covered in faeces and all kinds of other waste, leave alone bear the thought of cleaning our own home toilets. Now, here are thousands of our fellow citizens, resigned to their fate cast out by their social status, compelled to step into human waste every single day, asphyxiated by noxious gases, to earn a meagre living. According to a 2015 report, 1.3 million Dalits survive through manual scavenging. These forgotten workers of our embarrassing, archaic sewage system toil in unimaginable conditions risking health and hygiene. It takes the death of 11 manual scavengers this month for us to take notice.

Which government should we blame? There have been so many since 1993 that have failed to eradicate this practice. The Narendra Modi government's Swachh Bharat initiative, too, has done little to alleviate the woes of these workers. But we pay and will continue to pay a Swachh Bharat tax. Why have we failed to implement this ban? Of course, we need a more effective sewage system in every state and part of the country. Passing a law to ban manual scavenging is ineffective if there is no method to stop the practice. Developed nations treat the human waste before using mechanised vacuum pumps to extract it. But our manual scavengers use their hands to clean septic tanks and remove untreated human waste from bucket toilets or pit latrines.

A circular from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2015 admits that "Rehabilitation of manual scavengers is also slow and, in many cases, not adequate" because manual scavengers are "mostly illiterate and have no exposure to any work…any of them are old. They lack confidence for running self-employment projects." The government also goes on to say that many of the manual scavengers "are not willing even to avail any skill development training…Banks are hesitant about providing loan to manual scavengers. Even many State Channelising Agencies, due to low rate of recovery of loan from 'safai karamcharis', are not willing to extend loan to manual scavengers."

These are worrying signs of every Indian government's inability to gainfully rehabilitate manual scavengers even though the 'Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers' has been in existence on paper. According to an RTI document, Rs 24 crore of the released Rs 55 crore by UPA-II in 2013-14 remains unused while the current government is yet to allot any money to this cause.

This inhuman practice and option of employment has to be stopped. Only with the liberation of these workers can we gain true independence as a nation. The lack of political will of successive governments has been the bane of this class of workers. Toilets are being created but what of the disposal of human excreta after that? Will we have a film on the manual scavenger played by the likes of Akshay Kumar? While the government ponders at snails' pace about the plight of manual scavengers, four engineers supported by the Kerala Startup Mission are building robots to clean manholes. Perhaps only technology can be the saviour of the manual scavenger.

(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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