Manual scavengers: Unsung heroes who are treated as slaves of the modern era

Piyush Arya*

Despite the constitution abolishing untouchability in the country, I am asking you, people, do you shake hands with them? The answer is no. That is the way we are going on.  – Arun Mishra, Supreme Court judge on manual scavenging

The term ‘manual scavenger’ is defined as “a person engaged or employed … for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or 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” by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 targets to mechanize sewer cleaning and provide better protection and compensations. Currently, forcing or engaging anyone for manual scavenging is punishable with fines up to 5 lakhs or five years imprisonment or both. This amendment aims to make the law banning manual scavenging more stringent by increasing the fine and imprisonment terms. Ironically these were also guaranteed by similar acts in 1993 and 2013; still, there was a need for a new law. We hope this would be the last amendment, and the situation would improve soon.

Many people employed as manual scavengers die each year due to suffocation, choking, or drowning in black sewer sludge. According to the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), 282 sanitation workers have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in India from 2016 to Nov’ 2019. Surprisingly, Tamil Nadu, claimed as one of the most progressive states records the highest number of sanitation workers’ deaths. However, there seems to be massive under-reporting as Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an organization working to eradicate manual scavenging, claims that there were 429 deaths between 2016-2018 in NCR alone. The majority of the deaths are not being reported as a death in sewers. Their families fail to get any compensation, thus closing the coming generations’ doors to come out of this inhumane job.

Valmiki community – a sub-caste considered the lowest among Dalits, are amongst the people involved in manual scavenging. People of the Valmiki caste are treated as social outcasts and are forced to live in certain areas. They are untouchables by birth, and social stigma narrates that touching them makes a human impure. They are forced to dive into sewers to clean these for a paltry salary. Several of these workers’ incomes come from houses in a locality who do not pay them regularly. They are treated as lower people even when they ask for food, and many times are offered food from a distance, such as keeping the food at a different place.

Looking at the disadvantaged sections of the most underprivileged community, women are marginalized to an even greater extent. Reports suggest that majority of the sanitation workers are female. They work during the daytime cleaning latrines, sewers, etc. During the night, their husbands domestically abuse many of them daily. Many cases report that several loan defaults are resolved via sexual assaults of female members of the family. Interview reports with sanitation workers show that females have accepted that they would be subjected to assault by males in front of their children. We never hear any feminist groups raising voice for the rights of Valmiki women.

Poor implementation of rehabilitation programs and compensations delays are a significant deterrent for manual scavenging workers to move away from this line of work. Unavailability of employment opportunities forces them to stay as sanitation workers.

Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), or Clean India Mission was initiated in 2014 to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management. The target of this mission was to make India Open defecation free by 2019. Under this campaign, toilets were built rapidly. However, no importance was paid to sanitation workers.

According to Bezwada Wilson, a Ramon Magsaysay award winner, and co-founder and national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), the focus of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should be on the number of sanitation workers in the country. We should target to make India free of manual scavenging.

The vicious cycle and low wages and no compensation forces generation after generation to remain as manual scavengers. Children of these people generally drop out of school at an early age and start working as sanitation workers. A study conducted by the Indian Social Institute claims that less than 0.6 percent of people from these communities reach higher education. Several of these who manage to study and graduate often return to this profession. They also face discrimination in the job market, reducing their chances of finding other jobs, and getting out of manual scavenging.

Strong measures are required from the general community, government, and the sanitation workers themselves to see and understand the issue. As a country, we need to guarantee the fundamental right to live a life with dignity to these sanitation workers. We don’t need laws that are not implemented but stern measures. The first step could begin with accepting that this is a significant issue and needs to be resolved soon.

*Student at IIM Ahmedabad who wants to spread awareness about critical issues and achieve equality among India’s people

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