Banned under law, and shamefully unconfessed by society and governments, manual scavenging, as a preserve of untouchability and slavery, continues not just to claim lives across India but also enchains the living ones in death-like desolation of feudal constraints
"The manual carrying of human faeces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights."
Ashif Shaikh, founder of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan
In the filthy lanes of Shukar Bazaar in Delhi's Shahdara District, there is little window for 'sunshine' to pass through, as the boundaries of roofs from both sides almost touch each other. The lanes, at some turns, are just wide enough for a single person to pass through — much narrower than a modest house in some other locality will save for its alley.
The foul smell has been tied to a community — a community that has been moulded, or rather enslaved, to discharge the 'most impure' duty of cleaning the city! Like the mythological Shiva, they appear to swallow the poison of 'insanitation' to save the rest of the city from the same. But, unlike Shiva, they remain a subject of derogation, and not admiration. Their lanes and localities carry the tag of Valmik — indicating their demarcation from non-Valmik. Can any other social demarcation in modern India be so unjust? It appears not.
The situation is hardly different in other parts of Delhi NCR. In Ghaziabad's Sihani, for instance, 'the electricity pole' demarcates the Valmik locality! People from other parts of the pole are non-Valmik and, therefore, non-assimilable. Their grocery shops differ and so do their vegetable vendors! This crudely exposes the sham of 'inclusive India.'
In both Shukar Bazaar and Ghaziabad, the residents are the employees of municipal corporations, who do relatively dignified work than the manual scavengers — another section that is almost hidden, uncounted and politically or socially unorganised, allowing governments to toy with their numbers. In this article, we shall discuss certain socio-economic and health-related challenges faced by sanitary workers, particularly the manual scavengers who continue to be at the receiving end despite Indian Parliament and Supreme Court of India strictly banning 'hazardous' manual scavenging.
Who are manual scavengers?
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, defines a manual scavenger as "a person engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises…before the excreta fully decomposes." Further, the legislation states that the term "manual scavenging" shall be construed accordingly.
The definition of manual scavenger, though technically correct, fails to incorporate the larger social reality. Manual scavengers, predominantly, represent a caste-based working class. Caste structure is one among the several factors that perpetuate the practice of manual scavenging. The structure binds a community that shares an undue obligation of doing the "polluting" work. Social allegiance to this flawed structure shapes the horrible realities that unfold on the ground. Unless the structure is identified for redressal, changes at the ground level will remain a far dream.
Also, the definition is structurally flawed. The basic unit of analysis is not the practice of manual scavenging but the individual, as the connotation of manual scavenging is derived from manual scavengers, and not the other way round. It appears to imply that the manual scavengers must stay and harsher realities around them would have to be smoothened.
The Government of India, in 2020, envisaged an amendment Bill to make the 2013 Act more stringent. Redefinition of manual scavengers and mandatory mechanisation of cleaning of sewers were to be the prime objectives of the Bill. The Bill couldn't get cabinet approval and Ramdas Athawale, in a written reply in Lok Sabha, clarified that there was "no such proposal to amend the 2013 Act".
It is pertinent here to highlight an inexplicable distinction between manual scavengers and cleaners of sewage and septic tanks. There have been consistent calls for the manual cleaning of septic tanks to be recognised as manual scavenging. In August last year, the government informed the Parliament that there haven't been any deaths due to manual scavenging across the country since 1993! It, however, said that 941 people died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
On the contrary, the SKA reported the total number of such deaths since the year 2000 to be 1,760. Similar discrepancies in data offered by official estimates and dedicated NGOs keep coming to the fore regularly.
The definition of manual scavengers in the existing laws is totally cut off from real notions that define their existence, their segregation — both physical and social — and their life and death.
A life of socio-economic subjugation
MCD workers, concentrated in Loni Park of Delhi's Shahdara District, identify themselves as sweepers and toilet cleaners — claiming themselves to be different from the ones involved in manhole or septic tank cleaning. Arun, in his mid-twenties, who would not prefer his second name to be revealed, was confident that all manhole, sewage and septic tank cleaning work in his locality is done through machines, without the need of a person entering into it. Sanjay, a guardian figure in the locality, echoed the same view.
Witty and careful in his words, after having assessed (in his conviction) the writer's political leanings and motives, he would open up saying, "some among the locality are engaged in manual cleaning through private contractors, even I did a couple of years ago. But now machines are used predominantly"
Nearby, in Shukar Bazaar, the lanes designated as that of Valmik's were narrower and filthier, doors were azar and the rooms were dark. One could hear jingles of television soaps and the familiar cacophony of coolers and ceiling fans while struggling through the maze but — despite trying hard — the locality couldn't be put in the 'moderately prospered' bracket. Something abstract was amiss!
The questions related to lack of human dignity in their work, safety concerns and generational implications, found little resonance among the people. Admitting that though these are concerning issues, one of the MCD employees who has been working for the last 25 years as kuchha (temporary) employee, said that the "real problems" are delayed salary payments and pensions. He, like many others, is apprehensive whether he will be made permanent before retirement!
Had there not been the "apprehension around empty stomachs", the fight for human dignity and safety, along with caste-class considerations, could have been at the top of their mind!
Residents of Shukar Bazaar identify Raju 'Mantri' as their leader. In his small office near the main road, Raju pulled out a bunch of RTI applications related to the condition and concerns of the Valmik community. Pointing towards the most recent one — in respect to reporting time of MCD workers — he alleged that "a deliberate attempt is made to deprive the children of Valmik community from education so that the 'feudal system' is maintained.
Incidentally, Pradip Gehlot from Ghaziabad, echoed a similar concern, "they (Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam) want women sanitation workers to report to work at 5 am and if she leaves far away from her workplace, she will have to leave for work much earlier, without eating and feeding her children. Who will prepare her children for school? They don't want our children to get educated."
An official source in Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam, who wished not to be named, pointed towards social hierarchy in municipal corporations — which mirrors the social caste hierarchy. He said, "Upper castes hold creamy ranks but they get the job done by those belonging to lower castes, offering them some part of the salary they get…the private contractors have made things worse"
In totality, beyond death and serious health hazards, segregation of sanitation workers also subjects them to socio-economic subjugation in multiple ways. Government's gameplay with numbers and drumming around the success of 2013 Act and related policies cannot conceal the reality unfolding on the ground.
A mockery of law
Five years after the adoption of the Indian Constitution, the Parliament had passed the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging. Four decades later, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, articulated that employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry toilets be treated as punishable offences with fines and imprisonment. Twenty years down the line, arising out of inefficacy of the 1993 Act, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, was passed. The Act outlaws all manual excrement cleaning of insanitary latrines, open drains, or pits. It also emphasizes that "it is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity."
On paper, the 2013 Act was a slap in the face of Indian society and polity, as it acknowledged the "historical injustices and indignity". This acknowledgement, however, did little to change the situation on the ground. Further, in May 2014, the Supreme Court of India held that the Constitution requires state intervention to end manual scavenging and "rehabilitate" all people engaged in the practice. Quite shockingly, these clear-cut legislations and rulings from the highest institutions in India's legal structure have failed to eliminate the practice in the country.
To have even the slightest notion of the vast complexities of manual scavenging, one has to understand the structure of the communities involved in this practice. For instance, in northern states like UP and Bihar, the very term 'dom' is considered highly derogatory among unreserved, OBCs and some BCs. Shockingly, 'dom' refers to a class of humans but is no less than an abuse for the other class. Humans milk cows, feed dogs, ride horses, pet goats etc. but, ironically, when a person accidentally touches a 'dom', she/he would require bathing for purification.
Villages do have segregated spaces where all the manual scavengers — with whatever noun they relate with — reside. Theirs is a place with overflowing drains, filthy narrow lanes, from where the babus — if they occasionally have to pass through — won't go without covering their nose. Scavengers would be called when a septic tank is full or a buffalo has died in the places where babus live. Of course, they get some food grains, leftover meals or a meagre sum, if they are lucky, for the work they do. But majorly, it remains an obligation on their part to discharge these duties, which nobody else would.
The reason behind all this description is to indicate the existence of a feudal system. A manual scavenger may not be employed under a kshatriya or brahmin — or any other caste for that matter — but she has an unavoidable social obligation to discharge duties on command!
This obligation is hard to break as it is rooted in the psyche of the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and is in fact the biggest roadblock towards ending manual scavenging.
Technology, the greatest enabler of present times, is capable of solving a part of the manual scavenging problem. Promising solutions like Bandicoot and Sewer Croc have come over the past couple of years — thanks to the efforts of certain individuals and groups which could extract the required assistance from respective governments.
These technological interventions have come rather late. Their deployment, though increasing, remains below the mark on account of high cost involved in the operations, especially when "cheaper options" in the form of manual scavengers are available.
The way forward
Planned intervention at the ground level is a prerequisite for heading towards any solution in the future. The process of identification of manual scavengers and sanitation workers has been chaotic. In order to find out a systematic solution, a rigorous registration drive needs to be carried out to trace the "hidden" manual scavengers. Rather than polishing from the top, let the truth come out in the open, however large the numbers be. An extensive database needs to be prepared. These solutions, however, seem improbable given the current approach of the government where it is more obsessed with patting its own back, no matter what the truth has to tell!
Political organisation and mobilisation of the Dalit community has to be ensured. NGOs and civil society groups, apart from taking the lead by themselves, must also make an effort towards chiselling political awakening within the community. Long battle has to be fought to ensure that the education of children of manual scavengers and sanitation workers is not hampered. Education always is the best hope to uplift subjugated communities. The feudal mindset prevailing in the large parts of India needs to be recognised and called out loudly.
Further, as the Standing Committee Report on 2013 Act had noted, "the successful implementation of the new Act would largely depend on how the Corporations, Municipalities and Other Local Bodies like the Gram Panchayats are motivated and geared up for meeting the challenges thrown up by the new Act". Roles and responsibilities of the local government representatives need to be redefined to bring about fundamental functional transformation.
Views expressed are personal