By Rudril Pandey*
No person in the world would tout the practice of manual scavenging to be beneficial to society or a desirable outcome to be pursued. Many people would feel nauseated just by thinking about the activity. With an exceedingly low approval amongst the masses, one would think that manual scavenging would have been eradicated from the nation by now. The reality is far from it.
According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, 631 people have died in the activity from 2010 to March 2020. Accurate figures of the active number of people involved in the profession are not available. However, the reported number of active sewer cleaners is anywhere from 54,000 to as high as 7 Lakhs. These numbers show that manual scavenging is still prevalent in the country, despite the general disgust towards the practice. What has led to this situation?
Historical origins of manual scavenging
Records of manual scavenging date back centuries; ancient scriptures have mentions of some form of scavenging by certain specific castes. Manual scavenging has always been linked to caste, with a particular community always shouldering the burden of the activity. The community involved in the activity has always been subjugated by the rest of society and considered inferior. The community members were given an identifying name, which was used as a slur in everyday speech. In a way, manual scavenging has parallels with colonial slavery – both are incredibly repressive in nature and discriminate against a particular community.
Things improved a little in modern times. Some people started recognizing the repressive nature of the activity and called for changes. The central government and state governments passed laws formally abolishing the practice.
Evolving legal landscape
The practice of dry manual scavenging was legally banned in 1993; however, progress on stopping this practise was slow. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court asking for the 1993 Act to be implemented, and states to be held accountable for its implementation. The successive judgements on courts in relation to manual scavenging can be traced to Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and the courts had no concerns in extending the law banning manual scavenging to sewers and manholes too. The Supreme Court also recognized that protecting the rights of those entering manholes was an issue of fundamental rights. The cases and judgements of courts prodded the government to bring in a more comprehensive law in 2013, establishing a mechanism for compensation in case of injury and death and at the same time holding the state accountable for compensation regardless of whether the worker was employed by private parties or the state.
The proposed Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation ( Amendment) Bill, 2020 is also a welcome step towards solving operational deficiencies, which condemn generations of workers to the vile work of manual scavenging.
Lack of implementation of laws and non-state interventions
The laws have deemed the practice illegal, but the oversight on the implementation is almost non-existent. Enough efforts have not been made on the ground for changing situations. The government has given financial support to the manual scavengers, but it is inadequate in the absence of supporting structure. Lacking sustainable opportunities elsewhere, the people in this profession are stuck in their place.
Like other systemic failures, the social sector came in to support the community. Post-independence several organizations have come up to support the scavenging community. Organizations like Sulabh led by Bindeshwar Pathak and Safai Karmachari Andolan led by Bezwada Wilson, actively lobby for the sanitation workers’ rights and work towards their upliftment.
Inherent systemic issues affecting manual scavenging
Discussions with Mr. Bezwada Wilson provided certain perspectives about the situation. The society is discriminatory towards people of the community and doesn’t give them the opportunity to move out of the profession. Everyone bemoans the practice of manual scavenging, but no one takes the necessary steps to do anything about the situation. This is an example of the tragedy of commons; no one takes any initiatives on an individual level continuing the status quo.
Mr. Wilson stressed on the need for changing outlook. The people of the community have been in the profession for generations and have always been subjugated by the rest of society. This has normalized the practice in their minds, and they have stopped questioning its inhumaneness. According to Mr Wilson, Government and NGOs fail to actually understand the extent of this issue, and just provide capital expecting the people to improve their lives themselves. Simply providing capital is never a sustainable solution as the workers lack the skills and support to succeed elsewhere. This has led to the failure of numerous initiatives in the past; government schemes provided some support, but the workers returned to their profession after some time.
According to Mr Wilson, any change in the situation would only be possible by changing the mentality of the workers and the rest of society. The workers need to be given support to excel in other fields; this would include necessary infrastructure, access to quality education, providing skilling and reskilling facilities. Moreover, the community should trust any initiatives and see a way out of the profession for bringing any change in the mentality. In the experiences of Mr Wilson, the process of building trust and changing outlook took several years.
All the support to the workers would still fall short if the rest of society doesn’t change. People should be cognizant of the perils of manual scavenging and should take actions which would prevent promulgation of the practice. The government should also double down on removal of dry latrines from the country– a major contributor to manual scavenging. Building enough infrastructure to remove the need for manual scavenging should be the government’s first priority for eradicating manual scavenging. The government should also expense efforts in easing the integration the community in the main society. As progress is made towards modernization of cleaning mechanisms, improving protection gear, and other operational issues, the need of the hour is to engage with the issue of manual scavenging for what it is – an issue of caste, social injustice, and failure of the social machinery.
Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher, 1999. p. 37
*Second-year management student at IIM Ahmedabad. A large part of the article was motivated by the author’s interaction with Mr Bezwada Wilson, founder and convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan