Manual scavenging, caste and policy

Forum Against Manual Scavenging February 9, 2013

The act of manual scavenging has been practiced for long, unfettered by the complacent strands of a society wedded to an abominable tradition. Forum Against Manual Scavenging (FAMS), takes a closer look at the recently concluded "Maila Mukti Yatra" - national campaign against manual scavenging.
Image: The Hindu


A two-month long national campaign against manual scavenging, Maila Mukti Yatra has come to an end on 31 January, 2013. The campaign went around the whole nation, appealing to women and men engaged in manual scavenging to leave the inhuman practice. We, the Forum Against Manual Scavenging (FAMS) , have followed their campaign closely and believe that the persistence of manual scavenging and the State’s attempts to eradicate it must be looked at closely.

Abominable practice

The act of manual scavenging has been practiced for long, unfettered by the complacent strands of a society wedded to an abominable tradition. Manual scavenging as an occupation is entrenched in caste discrimination. We find that this is practiced as a form of untouchability in many places. The practice is not only confined to cleaning human excreta. The people who clean the filth from urban sewer lines and the railway sweepers are scavengers. It is striking to find that economic backwardness has got little to do with the issue as some of the most deprived districts of India, for instance Dantewada and Bastar, according to Census 2011 (provisional data) show no dry latrines being serviced manually. There are a significant number of states, whose names figure in major and non-major violators of the 1993 Act (The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act) violators’ lists. These are places where proportion per million dry latrines serviced manually in urban areas exceeds rural areas; NCT of Delhi being a prime example 1

State inaction

The approach of the state thus far has been, to say the least, halfhearted. The 1993 Act approached the issue from a largely sanitation perspective, and had feeble clauses to stop the practice of manual scavenging itself. This was evident from the rather restricted definition of the practice, which is one of the reasons no cases were ever filed under this legislation. Even today, after several campaigns that have highlighted the issue as a caste issue, and one that requires purposive state action to eradicate, it continues to be approached primarily as an issue of inadequate sanitation facilities. The practice continues unhindered, as even state agencies continue to employ workers to manually scavenge, like the railways, gram panchayats and municipalities. It has to be also noted that 1993 Act only covered dry latrines under its ambit. The efforts of the High Court to persuade the Centre to enact legislation led to the President announcing the new act in 2011.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, is the new legislation that has been tabled in the Parliament on 6 September, 2012. Even with its limitations, it is better than the previous legislation on the following grounds. The act is being legislated under the concurrent list. This may force state governments to implement it in a better manner as compared to the 1993 Act, which was enacted under the state list. Second, it widens the ambit of the law by encompassing the sewage system, railway tracks, septic tanks etc. under the definition of manual scavenging. Finally, it also addresses labour welfare and rehabilitation. Yet, skepticism arose because the 2012 bill failed to define rehabilitation in the context of manual scavenging.

Sewerage Worker India
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, is the new legislation that has been tabled in the Parliament on 6 September, 2012. Even with its limitations, it is better than the previous legislation in many respects.
Image: The Hindu

The act of abolition would reach a completion only if a national apology is tendered to the liberated manual scavengers; a directive is issued to the state affairs to continue compensation in the form of grant and pension instead of loans and a guarantee that manual scavenging in any form would be abolished with proper rehabilitation of liberated manual scavengers. Concomitant with the issue of manual scavenging, there is a view that “Right to Health” must be included in the fundamental rights of Indian citizens, without any discrimination. The workers are affected by cardiovascular degeneration, infections like hepatitis and leptospirosis, skin problems, prevalence of helicobacter, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters. They may also be prone to psychological disorder. They are exposed to infections by hand-to-mouth contact. The manual scavengers are also highly affected by gastric cancer. Pre-placement treatment and periodic treatment for manual scavengers along with an insurance protection are some plausible solutions to the problem at hand. Health problems faced by the manual scavengers are sometimes mistakenly identified to be because of their lack of awareness. Sanitary workers are unwilling to wear gloves as these gloves are either not meant for heavy work, or that these gloves are difficult to work with.

But government still retains a Western approach towards solving these problems. To a large extent, this problem can be attributed to the bureaucracy. The machines manufactured in Europe were not effective for the sewer lines in India. In outlining some methods to tackle the problem in terms of technology, the composting toilets among other things are unsuitable for India due to the use of water.

But government still retains a Western approach towards solving these problems. To a large extent, this problem can be attributed to the bureaucracy. The machines manufactured in Europe were not effective for the sewer lines in India. In outlining some methods to tackle the problem in terms of technology, the composting toilets among other things are unsuitable for India due to the use of water. Sorting out this issue alone will not solve the problem unless an automatically composting toilet that first separates water from solid waste is designed. The problems with flush toilets and modern sewage system also need adequate attention and proper technological advancement. Almost all small towns and small cities have open drain systems, which require constant maintenance, which involves manual scavenging. Similarly, closed drain systems also require the same. This is mainly due to inefficient solid waste management systems, where garbage enters the drain systems and causes blockages. These are some inherent problems in with the current policy initiative of promoting flush toilets as a method to end manual scavenging.

Recycling and reusing the water through natural environment-friendly methods can be a starting point in spreading awareness about sanitation. Contrary to the perception, it is the elite institutions and not the poor and the uneducated that are causing most of these problems. “Participatory rural appraisals” in the villages, involving bio-technologists, have helped people chart out solutions for their neighbourhood.

The struggle

The struggle to end manual scavenging is gathering momentum across the nation. Maila Mukti Yatra, organised by Rashtiya Garima Abhiyan to seek support from various parts of the country has come to an end on 31 January, 2013. The documentary movie below tries to offer glimpses of Maila Mukti Yatra 2012-2013.

The rally started at Bhopal with the objective of “maila mukti” meaning “freedom from dirt” - the practice of cleaning human excreta by hand. The march for dignity has intensified the need and en route, the former manual scavengers who are leading the yatra, have freed many Dalit women manual scavengers from the states they have visited. Addressing the human rights issue, which is spread across the country and is tied up in the feudal remnants of the society, is the first step in finding a solution to the issue. Concrete steps also need to be taken to eradicate this inhuman practice, its proper rehabilitation of liberated manual scavengers, from ‘modern’ sectors like Indian Railways.

The present demand is not only to de-recognize this very category of manual scavenging but to undertake redistribution and rehabilitation in such a way as to “change everybody’s sense of identity”. The abolition of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of manual scavengers can be achieved only through clear political will against it.

The present demand is not only to de-recognize this very category of manual scavenging but to undertake redistribution and rehabilitation in such a way as to “change everybody’s sense of identity”. The abolition of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of manual scavengers can be achieved only through clear political will against it. It would also bode well for the movement against manual scavenging in any form to maintain a degree of openness to engage in different ways to modernize this sector.

Any holistic perspective would require a primary emphasis on abolition of dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging and comprehensive rehabilitation package for manual scavengers without delinking it entirely from a necessity of technological advancement. Modernization of this sector would take place only with a dedicated drive for eradication of manual scavenging and not other way round.

  • 1. From Provisional Data from Houselisting and Housing Census, Census of India, 2011]
Caste, Forum Against Manual Scavenging, maila mukti yathra, manual scavenging, solid waste, Environment, Labour, Note, Poverty, Commons, Struggles Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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