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. Scholars of different eras have recognized the practice of manual scavenging as a part of the society in their times. 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 are considered inferior to others. The community members were given an identifying name, which was used as a slur in everyday speech. People found themselves lacking opportunities to move away from the profession. 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 noticed the calls for action and 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. The SKA filed a petition in the Supreme Court asking for the 1993 Act to be implemented, and states are 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 a welcome step towards solving operational deficiencies (such as mechanizing sewer cleaning, better protection, which condemn generations of workers to the vile work of manual scavenging.
Even after the establishment of a legal framework abolishing the practice and punishing people promoting the activity, the practice has refused to die out. It is important to ask why even after several interventions; the practice is still thriving.
Lack of implementation of laws and non-state interventions
The laws have deemed the practice illegal, but the oversight on the implementation is non-existent. Enough efforts have not been made on the ground for changing situations. Most of the policymaking process disregards the existence of the manual scavengers. The government has given financial support to the manual scavengers, but in the absence of supporting structure, it’s nothing more than lip service. Government schemes provide funds to the community to move to other jobs, but the government has not invested in developing infrastructure, which could aid in their upliftment. Lacking sustainable opportunities elsewhere, the people in this profession are stuck in their place.
Even though the stringent laws are a welcome step, until the social injustice towards the safai karamcharis is not undone, the future generations will continue to be condemned to the work of manual scavenging. The onus is to provide quality education and alternate employment to break this vicious cycle.
Like in all systemic failures, the social sector came in to support the community in moving away from manual scavenging. 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. Mr Wilson shared his insights about the situation on the ground. The insights were drawn from a lifetime of experience working in the field.
Inherent systemic issues affecting manual scavenging
According to Mr Wilson, there are inherent biases in society. 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, but no one takes the necessary steps to do anything about the situation. Everyone says the practice is bad, but only a few people take the initiative to invest in infrastructure to remove the need for manual scavenging. This is an example of the tragedy of commons, where everyone knows that a practice is bad, but no one takes the initiative to bring changes. The government also focusses a lot on cleanliness but did not take the sanitation workers into consideration while allocating funds for its initiatives.
Additionally, ideological changes are also required in the people. 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, where they have stopped questioning its inhumaneness and accepted their role. According to Mr Wilson, NGOs working for the community many times fail to actually understand the extent of the issue. Government and many NGOs 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 in other ventures. This has led to the failure of initiatives in the past, where government schemes provided the bare minimum support, and 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 ideology of the workers and the rest of society. The workers need to be given support to excel in other fields; this would start by building necessary infrastructure, providing quality education, providing skilling and reskilling facilities. Any initiatives should be trusted by the community, and they should see a tangible way out of the profession. In the experiences of Mr Wilson, the process of building trust and changing ideology took several years. With enough support, the process could be accelerated significantly. 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 on their end which would prevent the practice promulgate. 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 task for eradicating manual scavenging, and sufficient funds should be allocated for the same. 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.
Rudril Pandey, is a 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.