The scourge of manual scavenging

The scourge of manual scavenging

Manual scavenging, one of the most abominable realities that exist in the country today is defined as “the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers”. The excreta are piled into baskets which scavengers carry on their heads to locations that are several kilometres away from the latrines. Manual scavenging, today, continues in parts of India where there is no proper sewage systems or safe faecal sludge management practices. 

For a country that is seven decades into its independence, it is a tragedy that a section of its population still earn their living by cleaning human faeces. It is painful to even imagine the exploitation and humiliation that manual scavengers are subjected to.

The right to be free from manual scavenging is an economic, social, and cultural right. Over the years, various movements and organisations have been established to abolish this despicable practice, including an Act. What is shocking, however, is that there is no proper data available on the issue and whatever official statistics is available contradict each other.

According to a report in  The Indian Express , the inter-ministerial task force in 2018 accounted for  a whopping number of 53,000 manual scavengers in India; this was four times greater than the last survey conducted in 2017. Moreover, this number accounts for only 121 districts out of the total 600 plus in the country. There is no clarity as to what constitutes to being considered a manual scavenger in the eyes of the government. This makes the problem even more complex. The biggest violator of the law is the Indian Railways which dumps human excreta directly on railway tracks every day and employs scavengers to clean it.

Digging through the layers of manual scavenging in India, one realises that it has deep-rooted social stigmas attached to it. Like most things in the country, this too has an untold casteist angle to itself. The International Dalit Solidarity Network claims that around 1.3 million people in India, mostly women, are involved in manual scavenging.  Reports suggest that 99% of those involved in manual scavenging are Dalits and among them, 95% are women. This job is akin to "forced labour or slavery" since Dalits are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination and debt bondage. Apart from having to earn their livelihood by manually carrying or cleaning excreta, the workers are also forcibly kept away from the public sphere.

Movements like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have repeatedly tried to revolutionise the image of sanitation in the country. But one cannot deny the fact that such initiatives will only do little good until they incorporate the plight of manual scavengers in their discussions. It is essential that we normalise debates and discussions around the issue to attract attention of the legislative and executive bodies and then to work towards implementing laws that ban manual scavenging. In the wake of this country’s economic and social development, it is now pertinent that manual scavengers are liberated from these demeaning jobs and are provided appropriate rehabilitation. No country can truly progress until we bring to the forefront the ones often unheard and unseen.

- Aditi Yadav
Guest Writer

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