Manual scavenging is the age-old unfortunate practice of cleaning, carrying, and disposing human excreta from dry latrines or sewers into the disposal sites. Despite prohibitive legislations in place, a government survey from 2019, carried out across 170 districts, found that over 54000 people actively engage in the practice. In 2019 alone, 110 people died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers. For a job that has been outlawed for years, the manual practice continues without providing even the essential safety equipment that must be provided to the people engaging in this dangerous job. It is regrettable for a country that has been to Mars and back that we still have not eradicated this sordid practice from our societal fabric.

Caste and Gender: Cobwebs of a discriminatory trap

Manual scavenging is a socio-economic problem deep-rooted in the country’s caste system and plagues India’s dream of creating a modern, liberal, and equitable society for all its citizens. Most of the scavengers are Dalits primarily from the Valmiki caste and are often unregistered workers, hence forced to work on meager wages and other forms of in-kind compensation. These communities are forced to live in unsanitary residences, usually close to dumping grounds on the city’s outskirts. Moreover, the little resources that they have at their disposal keep them trapped in this practice for generations.

Another divide is created by gender. Usually, wherever the entire family is engaged in scavenging. Men work at places where the wages are slightly higher, like cleaning the railway tracks or large public sewers, while women tend to clean clogged latrines in houses that need to be cleaned daily. Around 85% of the female scavengers are married who were all forced to either take up the job as a replacement or as a companion for their mothers-in-law.

Scavenging has become a part of the communal identity for the people involved in this practice. Society knows who they are and what they do and hence prey on them at every step possible. The children from these communities often don’t get to go to school, but even if they do, they are forced to sit in corners with negligible attention and interaction with other students and teachers. The community members are also denied rights to use public goods and entrance to community gatherings. It is nearly impossible for someone who wants to move away from the practice to get another job as people are extremely reluctant to offer them any other job.

The challenges associated with rehabilitation.

With a few batchmates of mine, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Activist Mr. Bezwada Wilson (Safai Karmachari Andolan). He helped us identify some critical challenges associated with rehabilitating the people associated with the practice. Post the 1993 Legislation that prohibited manual scavenging; the government has taken several steps to rehabilitate the workers. Unfortunately, all the actions that have been taken have been severely misaligned. In 2007, The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment started the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS). Over INR 231 Crore was spent to be given away in the form of loans to the workers. However, a 2011 survey found the following severe shortcomings in the eventual impact of the initiative:

  1. More than 95% of the workforce comprises women, yet 51% of the beneficiaries were male.
  2. Three beneficiaries out of every four were not even associated with the practice in the first place.
  3. The INR 40,000 loan, which can be given per family to the safai karmchari to start a new small-scale venture, was majorly eaten up by middlemen. The beneficiaries eventually did not even receive even INR 5000, which they defaulted, having no idea why they were given the amount or any repayment condition.

Policymakers seek solutions from the beneficiaries themselves:

Mr. Bezwada, over the years, has had several opportunities to interact with public servants and administrators over the issue after he filed his petition to the supreme court on the issue. The common feature of all these conversations was that the state machinery, rather than seeking potential solutions themselves, revert by asking for solutions from the activists and petitioners. Eventually, It is the state’s responsibility to create an equitable society for all its citizens, and the fact that they respond by asking follow up questions indicates the priority given by them to the issue. This is possibly why the government has, on several occasions, has extended the time frame to implement the alternatives necessary to eradicate the practice after it was outlawed for the first time in 1993.

Hopefully, the central government’s recent promise on the world toilet day by mechanizing man-holes into machine holes isn’t just another one in a long list of promises made to the people.

What Mr. Wilson further stressed was that an even bigger problem exists at the end of beneficiaries, which is often ignored to jack up any policy initiative’s impact. There is no monitoring mechanism in place. As a result, a beneficiary who would receive the proposed loan amount would instead use up the money to meet personal expenses and go back to work the very next day. People who attempt to start a small-scale venture of their own are highly likely to fail as they do not have the necessary skills to succeed in other ventures.

Awareness is where the real fight lies.

The caste hierarchy is deeply ingrained in the minds of people. Someone from the privileged sections of society will never even imagine working as a manual scavenger. On the other hand, a kid from the Valmiki community is extremely likely to think that scavenging is the only job he or she can get. Even when an NGO or even the government tries to help a safai karmachari by creating a sustainable life outside of scavenging, scavenging forms for a convenient fallback option as it is a socially acceptable lifestyle in the community despite the traumatizing nature of the job. According to Mr. Bezwada Wilson, this is where the real battle is. The community’s awareness of the nature of the job, potential options outside scavenging, and realization of their self-worth are areas where the maximum work needs to be done. The long-term goal must be to strike a balance between tangible mitigative options and raising sensitivity and awareness.

Ashish Joshi, MBA final year student at IIM Ahmedabad.


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