While distributing the Swachh Survekshan Awards in November by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, President Ram Nath Kovind called manual scavenging a shameful practice, eradication of which is not only the responsibility of the government but also of the society. This is because manual scavenging is rooted in India’s historical system of hierarchy and exclusion: The caste system. As per recent data by the government, out of 43,797 identified manual scavengers, 42,000 belong to the Scheduled Castes (SC) or Dalits.
According to the UN India, manual scavenging refers to the practice of manual cleaning, disposing, or handling of the human excreta, in any manner, from dry latrines and sewers. Due to the prevalence of the caste system in India, such harmful tasks are mostly done by those belonging to the lower rung of the caste hierarchy, the Dalits. Like many other dangerous tasks, manual scavenging workers are exposed to the risk of getting infected with diseases like cholera, hepatitis, tuberculosis, typhoid, and many more. According to a study conducted by Water Aid India in 2018, 1,136 women were engaged in manual cleaning of dry latrines in just 36 settlements across four states. Even with all these risks, a study by TERI shows, the wages they receive are generally low, ranging somewhere between INR 40 to INR 100 for cleaning around 50 dry toilets and the maximum is INR 500 to INR 1,000 for cleaning four drainage lines and sewers depending on the choice of employers.
Doctors, police, and sanitation workers were amongst the most affected in the two waves of COVID-19 which struck India. COVID warriors were risking their lives so much so that the government acknowledged their work by showering rose petals and the Prime Minister thanking them, whereas in 2021, during the second wave of COVID-19, due to lack of protective gear, 25 sanitation workers lost their lives and yet no real efforts were made by any institution to improve the welfare of the sanitisation workers. The social exclusion from the society due to their identity got even more enhanced due to the stigma that people working during the COVID-19 pandemic are infected with the virus.
The practice of manual scavenging poses several questions over equal access to protection offered by the Indian Constitution and the Indian judiciary guaranteeing rights to all its citizens. Various legislations like Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR) have been brought to provide the group with the rights they deserve and are necessary for living a dignified life. However, due to the lack of pace of the reform drive, changes have been less than expected.
Despite these legislations, no significant improvement in the condition of manual scavengers is witnessed. The same can be witnessed through the recent declaration by the government in the Parliament, whereby no deaths due to manual scavenging per se were reported in the country; however, 941 deaths were reported while the cleaning of sewer/septic tanks.
COVID warriors were risking their lives so much so that the government acknowledged their work by showering rose petals and the Prime Minister thanking them, whereas in 2021, during the second wave of COVID-19, due to lack of protective gear, 25 sanitation workers lost their lives and yet no real efforts were made by any institution to improve the welfare of the sanitisation workers.
Such denial of the practice can also be related to the recent Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which has also been criticised for perpetuating the practice of manual scavenging in India by increasing the number of toilets that require manual cleaning. Based on the analysis of toilets constructed under the SBM till 2017, 13 percent have twin pits, 38 percent have septic tanks, and 20 percent have single pits, all of these come under dry toilets that require manual cleaning. Indian Railways (IR) is the largest user of dry toilets in India, IR has 296,012 dry toilets, which require manual cleaning, making it the biggest violator. Indian railway has installed 258,906 bio-vacuum toilets in all the long-distance travelling trains, which is not only helping save 400 crores of the additional maintenance cost, if steps like these are applied in all types of trains running, it can solve the issue of manual scavenging in government enterprise and will broadcast a positive message to other sectors who are relying on the practice of manual scavenging.
In addition to bringing the required changes in railways, the government should also construct more eco-friendly toilets. Models like Namma Toilets, which is the brainchild of Tamil Nadu Municipal Corporation, and other eco-friendly models that have been developed in countries like South Africa should be promoted through information sharing and assistance under SBM. By focusing on universal design and efficient water technology, these models provide the option of scalability as well. Thus, allowing easy adoption in rural and urban areas.
In the recent annual report of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), The Chairperson admits that the organisation lacks the resources, and that the results over the years have not matched the expectation. This shows the distinction between the vision of the government and how they execute the plans for the reforms.
In addition to this, the existing literature has also recognised barriers like the problem of identification, absence of alternative economic opportunities, and stigmatisation of the community for eliminating the manual scavenging from the country. Though the SBM has been criticised in light of the problem it creates for manual scavengers, if looked through different lenses, SBM and Swach Survekshan can provide solutions to a few of the factors listed above.
The task of identifying the manual scavengers is given to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), who in turn depends on the state governments for actual data. Lack of data is also hampering the compensation process where 10 lakh is granted to the families who lost someone engaged in manual scavenging activity, as of now only 50 percent of 123 workers were able to receive the compensation.
India records 5 million sanitation workers currently working in nine different types of sanitisation work. As of 2021, the survey conducted by Swachh Survekshan covered 4,242 cities and 17,475 villages in India, making it the largest cleanliness survey in the world. Identifying the numbers of manual scavengers in India through these Survekshan will not only provide more extensive coverage but will also uniform the data collection process across different states through formalised techniques like service level progress (data collected by local bodies), citizen feedback, and certification process.
Required efforts for real change
For increasing the alternative employment opportunities for manual scavengers the Self Employment Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (SRMS) was brought in; however, as of 2019, the scheme had covered a mere 6 percent. Lack of required data on beneficiaries, high level of risks associated with self-employment, and the longer transition/waiting period after the upskilling are a few factors that have led to the scheme’s failure in bringing any required real change. Thus, employing all the identified scavengers in tasks related to Swachh Bharat Mission immediately after their identification could help them transition faster. Manual scavengers can be employed in building toilets, waste management, and cleanliness drive under SBM. As per the progress made till 2019, an estimated 90 crore person-days employment was generated in the Grameen region alone through SBM. Further, since the Swach Survekshan ranks cities and villages based on their performance, including the mechanisation of the manual cleaning process as part of the evaluation matrix could provide additional motivation for the local bodies to eradicate the practice from their areas. Further, the MNREGA and other social security schemes could be linked with the Scavenging Act of 2013. An amendment could be brought to link the Scavengers Act of 2013 to link with MGNREGA social security laws like Unorganised Sector workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. By doing this, scavenging can be eliminated to a degree in rural areas.
In the recent annual report of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), The Chairperson admits that the organisation lacks the resources, and that the results over the years have not matched the expectation. This shows the distinction between the vision of the government and how they execute the plans for the reforms. As the economic slowdown gets even worse due to COVID-19 resulting in a subsequent rise in unemployment, these manual scavengers will be forced to stick with the decades-long distressing activity which is already a stigma to their identity. If action is not taken immediately, all the previous gains made will go in vain.
Bhavini Saraf is Student at Christ University, Bangalore and former Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation. Siddharth Verma is M.A. Global Studies at Ambedkar University and Research Analyst Intern at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.
The article was originally published on the Observer Research Foundation website.