Trapped in time and in gutters – Is the situation changing for manual scavengers?

manual scavenging

“Some of the sanitation workers I met, face such high instances of mental trauma that they cannot wear anything yellow, cannot eat anything yellow.”

-MaulikrajShrimani, WhistleblowerTheatre Group

“I do not know anyone from my community who does anything apart from sanitation work. The only person I know to do something else is Mr.Purushottam Vaghela, who is working in an NGO for the upliftment of the Valmiki community.”

-Kokilaben, Sanitation worker, Ahmedabad

Manual scavenging, an oppressive reality that I and perhaps many others like me know about, but chose to ignore perhaps because it’s too depressing a reality to confront or perhaps because we see no hope for the situation to change. Maybe the reason for our apathy is that we are the ones who are responsible for their situation in the first place. Maybe it is we who think that cleaning our shit takes away our dignity so those who have never had the right to live with dignity in spirit should do this demeaning task.

I was exposed to the harsh reality of manual scavenging through a theatre performance by Whistleblower theatre in IIM Ahmedabad and a talk by Manjula Pradeep, human rights activist. Post this; I cannot go back to being ignorant of manual scavenging. I am writing this article to inform the readers about the hard reality of manual scavenging. For it is only if we truly understand the situation and empathize with the cause that we can expect the lives of the manual scavenging community to improve.

Manual Scavenging – The current situation

The International Labour Organisation recognizes three forms of manual scavenging in India – removal of human excreta from dry latrines or streets, cleaning septic tanks and cleaning gutters and sewers. Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation performed by individuals belonging to the lowest rungs of Dalit caste.

Every year, multiple deaths are recorded due to suffocation while cleaning gutters. According to the official report by the National Commission for SafaiKaramcharis, 123 people employed as manual scavengers lost their lives between 2016 and 2018. However, these numbers seem to be under-reporting the situation as the data released by SafaiKaramchariAndolan state that there have been 429 deaths due to manual scavenging in Delhi NCR alone during this period. Additionally, these people have a very low life expectancy; they face a high risk of cancer, skin infections, hepatitis B, etc.

Apart from the direct effect on physical health, the disgusting and humiliating nature of their work subjects the workers to mental trauma. Many find the task so disgusting that they find it difficult to enter a gutter without some form of intoxication. They thusstart consumingcheap alcohol, bidi, and tobacco at very early ages, which has severe effects on their health.

The entire caste of sanitation workers is treated as social outcasts restricted to live in only certain localities.They are untouchables, touching them makes any human impure according to the dominant social narratives. Additionally, they meagre wages and are thus marginalized economically as well. For their meals, they have to go around the locality they clean, asking for food. They are treated with indignation even when they ask for food, and many times are offered spoiled food.

Even within the sanitation workers, predominantly the Valmiki caste, women are marginalized to an even greater extent. While in the day they work cleaning dry latrines, open defecation sites, roads, schools, etc. back at home, many of them are also routinely subjected to domestic abuse by their intoxicated husbands. There have also been cases when a Valmiki man asks for a loan, and in return, the lender sexually assaults his wife, daughter or sister. Talking with Kokilaben, a sanitation worker, it stuck me how she very casually mentioned that her husband beats her every other day infront of her children. While feminist groups throughout the world are raising voice for the rights of women, there is no one for Kokilaben and many Valmiki women.

Why is this situation not changing?

The vicious cycle of oppression forces children from these communitiesto drop out of schools at an early age and work as manual scavengers. A study conducted by the Indian Social Institute across states with a high population of manual scavengers shows that less than 0.6 percent of sanitary workers reach higher education. Even many of those who manage to study and even graduate return to this humiliating profession. Some college and school going students also reported the significance of their caste identities in educational spaces, highlighting that universities and seemingly modern spaces of knowledge fail at providing students with a secure place to study and grow. They are also discriminated against in the job market, limiting their possibilities of finding anything out of manual scavenging as a means of livelihood.

Additionally, the Government of India has failed in delivering justice to these people. Manual Scavenging was prohibited by The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and after that by the 2013 act, Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation. The Government considers this practice to be non-existent. Also, the government refused to accept those who clean sewers and septic tanks as manual scavengers. Reports by SafaiKaramchariAndolan show that more than 7.7 lakh people earn their livelihood as manual scavengers today, a figure that government of India claims to be between 34,380. The government’s failure to even acknowledge the existence of this profession limits any possibility of upliftment.

Even the existing policies for the welfare of these manual scavengers are poorly enforced. While the rule dictates that those engaged in sanitation work should have access to protective gear – helmets, gumshoes, gloves; they are seldom made available. Despite Supreme Court ordering all state governments to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakhs to the families of so-called “sanitation martyrs,” such compensations are rarely awarded and even if they are, this happens after decade long time gaps. According to data collected by ParshottamVaghela, an activist based in Gujarat, 65 of the 178 such families didn’t receive any compensation. Even those that received compensation also only received partial compensation. Additionally, during post mortems and FIR firing, these people are exploited, and their cause of death is not reported as death due to suffocation while cleaning sewers which leaves them out of purview for their fair compensation. The families of these sanitation martyrs are offered employment but that too as sanitation workers only so that they could die a similar death.

Countries like Malaysia have dealt with the issue of manual scavenging through the mechanization of this process. While employment of people as manual scavengers has been declared illegal in India in 1993, the efforts at its mechanization have been limited despite the availability of suitable technology for the same. Perhaps, this is due to the availability of cheap labor resulting in the unwillingness of the government to invest in these technologies.

Over the past few years, multiple social organizations have come to light to create awareness about the issue of manual scavenging. Bezwada Wilson, the convener of SafaiKaramchariAndolan, has played an active role to bring changes at the policy level, asking for official surveys for estimation of the scale of manual scavenging, rehabilitation of sanitation workers, etc. Other organizations like Navsarjan work on grassroots levels, creating awareness, driving policy level change, educating the Valmikis about their rights and motivating them to enroll in skill development workshops. Despite such efforts, a lot of activist effort remains on guiding the families of those who died during sanitation work on how to claim their compensation. Thus even a higher level of participation by activists is needed to eradicate this issue by addressing its roots.

The Valmikis are a small community, andas activists claim, are not united. This has resulted in lower political mobilization and representation of their interests. Even candidates belonging to SC category rarely take up the issues of sanitation workers. This year, an interesting turn of events was seen with Valmiki community fielding candidates on all seven constituencies in Delhi. While this was a great symbolic step, it didn’t lead to political victories.

In my opinion, the biggest barrier in the upliftment of manual scavengers is the discriminative mindset as well as the unsanitary habits of the citizens of India. The not in my backyard mindset towards cleanliness, cleaning up is dirty work mind-set lies at the root of this issue. Even if mechanization is adopted throughout the nation, unsanitary habits will lead to the continued requirement of manual intervention. The caste based mentality would again result in the Valmiki caste being forced to perform any sanitation related work and deny them of respectful employment opportunities.

A concerted effort is required from the general community, government, activists as well as the sanitation workers themselves to see and understand the issue from its very roots. These sanitation workers are human beings, citizens of India, and not ghosts. Its high time that instead of trying to deny their existence, all of us make a concerted effort for their upliftment.

Charul Agrawal is a student at IIM Ahmedabad who wants to spread awareness on critical social issues to initiate dialogue and action


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