Manual scavenging, social exclusion of past even today play crucial role India’s sanitation outcome


Excerpts from the paper “Where Bharat Goes” by Diane Coffey of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE):

Why have government latrines been rejected by villagers for at least the last seventy years? The social scientists at the 1956 Ministry of Health conference discussed many possible reasons, including the fact that villagers’ beliefs about cleanliness and hygiene do not cohere with the germ theory of disease. They also pointed to the idea that, although villagers emphasize the cleanliness and purity of their homes and bodies, cleanliness of public spaces such as lanes and fields is not valued.

Several conference participants mentioned that villagers see few benefits of latrine use. The discussion at the 1956 conference also touched on another aspect of village life that is crucial to understanding rural sanitation outcomes today. In the words of Professor Karve, one of the conference participants, ‘[I]f we want to promote changes in the village we must recognize the importance of caste difficulties’ (Ministry of Health, 1957, p. 119).

Of particular importance in the 1950s was manual scavenging: In well-off households it was common for newlymarried women and the elderly to defecate in or near the home, and for the faeces to be carried away by a person from a sweeper caste. This unsanitary practice endangered health of the whole village, especially of the sweepers. People from manual scavenging castes were considered the lowest among untouchables and suffered severe discrimination.

The conference participants noted that as a result of economic exploitation and social exclusion many sweepers were leaving their work and migrating to cities. The participants resolved that additional attention to the situation of manual scavengers was needed, but they also opined that ‘it would be nearly impossible to expect the high caste people to cooperate in the manual handling of faeces’ (Ministry of Health, 1957, p. 115).

Data suggests that, although it still exists today, manual scavenging is not very common: The 2011 Census found that about 800,000 households, or less than 0.5 per cent, still use dry latrines serviced by humans (Government of India, 2012b). Nevertheless, the fact that manual scavenging and the extreme social exclusion that accompanied it were common in rural India’s past plays a crucial role in today’s sanitation outcomes.

To understand why, we need to understand how the latrines provided by the government work. The government builds and promotes pit latrines, which consist of an approximately 50-cubic-foot hole in the ground, lined with bricks and covered with a cement slab. These latrines also have a latrine pan connected to the hole, with walls or curtains around the pan for privacy. Where they are used, these affordable latrines are a boon to public health. They have been used to greatly reduce open defecation and the diseases it spreads in low- and middle-income countries all around the world.

For example, in rural Bangladesh, as of 2014, only 4.7 per cent of households defecate in the open, and 84.4 per cent of households use pit latrines (BDHS, 2014). Despite the success of pit latrines elsewhere, however, they are unpopular in India. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 found that 55 per cent of rural Indian households defecate in the open, and that only 18 per cent use pit latrines (NFHS, 2016).

When rural Indian households build their own latrines, they are more likely to build expensive latrines with large underground tanks. Rural Indians tend to reject the affordable pit latrines promoted by the government, and which are used in other countries, because the pits, which fill up after a few years, require manual emptying.

If managed properly, manually emptying a latrine pit can be safe and hygienic from a biological perspective. That is because when a full latrine pit is left to decompose for a period of six months to a year, the faeces turn into fertilizer, which is safer to handle than fresh sludge. For this reason, the government recommends that each household have two pits: While one is decomposing, the other can be used.

Yet, as the conference participants pointed out in 1956, most rural Indians refuse to handle faeces; they see it as a task that only the sweepers can do. They believe that manually handling faeces would not only be degrading, but it would also result in their own social exclusion.

This view has changed little from the 1950s: Even when I or my research collaborators explain to villagers that emptying decomposed latrine pits poses little threat to their health, people are nevertheless extremely concerned about the social consequences of handling faeces (Coffey & Spears, 2017). The fact that affordable latrine pits need to be emptied manually means that few in rural India are interested in having one.

The 2018 survey described above confirms that rural households in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar still tend to practise open defecation until they invest in a latrine with a large tank or pit that is not emptied manually. The average cost of latrines that households built for themselves was Rs 34,000, which is far in excess of the Rs 12,000 subsidy, and implies investment in large pits or containment chambers.

Further, those households that had small pits (likely because they had received contractor-constructed latrines) were least likely to use them: the survey found that about 40 per cent of Hindus with small latrine pits (around 50 feet) defecated in the open (Gupta et al., 2019).

The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (SBM) disregards the fundamental relationship between sanitation and caste. Although the programme is highly visible—the logo, Gandhi’s glasses, has even been printed on currency—the sanitation workers who clean public places remain highly invisible. In a 2014 article published in Economic and Political Weekly, Anand Teltumbde points out that India is less clean than other countries not because people are poorer, but because of the caste ethos that relegates sanitation work to people who are considered untouchable (Teltumbde, 2014).

Teltumbde explains that ‘(upper-caste) people derive a sense of superiority in littering the place, expecting it to be cleaned by a lower-caste scavenger’ (p. 12). Teltumbde argues that without addressing casteist attitudes towards sanitation workers, the SBM is unlikely to radically improve India’s cleanliness. Ravi Bathran, a scholar who researches manual scavenging, points out that the SBM has done little to change the fact that the Indian government frequently disregards its own rules and laws when providing public services (Bathran, 2015).

For example, most toilets in the Indian Railways dispose of faeces on the tracks, rather than collecting the waste and disposing it of hygienically. The choice not to outfit train cars with waste-collection containers not only is dangerous to health, but also means that the government hires people almost exclusively from sweeper castes to clean faeces from the tracks. The government also hires sweepers to manually de-sludge drains and deblock sewers and pipes. All of these practices are banned under the 2013 Anti-Manual Scavenging Act.

Yet, even the high-profile SBM has not made the necessary investments in machines and technology to prevent this work from being done by people. Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award – winner and convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan – warns that increasing the number of full latrine pits may also increase the demand for manual scavenging work, thus reinforcing the social exclusion and humiliation of manual scavengers (The Hindu, 2016).

These three omissions—failing to make provisions for latrine pit–emptying, failing to abide by the Anti-Manual Scavenging Act and failing to combat casteism against sanitation workers—are likely themselves enough to undermine the SBM.

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