MANUAL SCAVENGING - AN ACT OF DISCRIMINATION AT MULTIPLE LEVELS
Updated: Feb 1
“In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. This is the most inhumane (way) to treat human beings like this” – Justice Arun Mishra, 2019.
You imagine an act that violates the law, violates Human Rights and shatters the dignity of a human, and manual scavenging comes to your mind. An act that was banned and recognized as illegal in 1993 continues to prevail, and that too in open, till date. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 defines a manual scavenger as ‘A person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act, or thereafter by an individual or a local authority, contractor or an agency for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open-drain pit.’ India Code
Manual Scavenging is an act or a practice that doesn’t only violates law of the Indian Constitution but also Human Rights, as the Indian Constitution complies with the International Code of Human Rights, it focuses on the eradication of untouchability and discrimination. Bhatt 2020
The practice that has been identified by various activists as a form of slavery and shame, was banned in the year 1993, but continues to employ nearly 66,692 individuals and has taken the lives of nearly 342 manual scavengers in the last 5 years as per the government’s latest data. However, Mr. Bezwada Wilson, a human rights activist calls it highly underreported and another problem that can be evident is the process of data collection, as the survey was confined to the towns of 14 Indian States. Mr. Wilson claims nearly 26 people have died in 2021 itself. In the year 2017 for a period of January- August 2017, National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK) reported, 123 people have died due to manual scavenging whereas the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) on the other hand estimated and reported 429 manual scavengers have died due to the practice in the same course of time in National Capital Region alone.
The underreporting of figures has been a practice for years now, as the Socio-Economic and Caste Census conducted in 2011 identified 1,82,205 households having Manual Scavenging as their primary occupation. However, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in 2011 claimed that there were around 12 lakh manual scavengers, something which can also be supported by the fact that in 2011 itself, as identified by the Census, there were nearly 26 lakh dry latrines which challenges the given data of 1,82,205 manual scavengers. The data is clearly skewed and is highly underreported.
We shall be in a position of tackling or solving a problem only after we identify it, and the degree of our problem-solving ability shall depend upon the degree of identification of the problem.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was aimed at completely eliminating the act of manual scavenging by means of various provisions charging stringent penalties for both direct and indirect employment of an individual in such an act. The penalty on the same at the first instance is chargeable with imprisonment or a fine up to INR 2 lakh or even both. The act also makes it a mandate that all the safety provisions should be taken care of while cleaning which is often criticized, as on one hand the act talks about completely abolishing the practice but on the other hand also mentions the safety measures to be followed while cleaning. As per the act, if a worker dies during or while performing the work despite all safety measures being taken care of, the employer shall be required by law to pay a compensation of INR 10 lakh to the family of the worker. Another criticism that should be addressed is that, although it says a scavenger using protective gears shall not be identified as a manual scavenger, however nowhere in the act has the term protective gear been defined which is a major loophole in the act and is highly misused as a mere piece of cloth covering the face is used as a safety gear. The guidelines within the act rather than complementing and strengthening the act contradicted it.
The act also identified the fact that since sanitation is looked after by the state governments, it gave states the enforcement power and to ensure its successful implementation. Although the delegation of authority was done, the role of each body was not clearly assigned. This proved to be a major loophole, as it simplified the process of the government passing on the blame and getting away with it.
No defined roles for government bodies led to no conviction. Mr. Wilson highlighted the issue by pointing out that ever since the 2013 act has been passed and enforced, no death of a manual scavenger has led to a conviction. Manual Scavenging has not witnessed 0 convictions.
Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2014 and the Manual Scavenging Amendment Bill- 2020
On 2nd October 2020, the honorable Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi initiated the Swachh Bharat Mission which aimed at making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) in the next 5 years. The mission was principled to address the sanitation issue in India and did achieve that to a certain extent by constructing toilets and reducing the practice of open defecation that was prevalent in India. However, it should be noted that only 13% of total toilets constructed, were twin pits which means that only 13% of the total toilets did not require manual cleaning while others will be requiring the same. This further adds on the problem that was already existing. It should also be seen that the toilets where the septic tanks are being built have also been built in a way to ensure the septic tanks can be cleaned manually.
The Manual Scavenging Amendment Bill 2020 aims at completely mechanizing the process, it is also evident as the term ‘man-hole’ is to be replaced by ‘machine-hole’, indeed a noble thought. However, the bill also claimed to be drafted without concerning the stakeholders and does not clearly define who can be called a manual scavenger. Another criticism that the bills has, is that it completely neglects the health aspect of manual scavengers.
Safai Karmachari Andalon v. Union of India: In this judgement, the court clearly highlighted the existence of the practice and directed the government to immediately rehabilitate in a timely manner and provide the necessary compensation of INR 10 lakh to all the 7 individuals that have died.
Delhi Jal Board v. Safai Karmachari Andolan Case: Justice Ashok B. Hinchgeri, in his judgement, critiqued the implementation of laws and highlighted the act as a pure violation of fundamental rights while urged to take up cases of ‘silent suffers’ as well.
Chinnamma and Ors. v.State of Karnataka and Ors.: High Court of Karnataka in this landmark judgment in favor of the deceased who died while cleaning the septic tank due to drowning. The court, mentioned mere compensation of INR 2 lakh is not enough the family of the deceased should be rehabilitated safely.
Role of Casteim and Gender
In the words of Mr. Wilson, “Not all Dalits are manual scavengers but all manual scavengers are Dalits”. Based on a report by Oxfam, nearly 99% of all manual scavengers are Dalits while amongst them 90-95% are women. Historically jobs and professions in India were a conflict of caste and class. For hundreds of years Dalits have been engaged in this ‘profession’ and very often by birth and have been socially excluded, termed as untouchables, denied of their dignity and fundamental rights. It is nearly impossible for individuals to escape the vicious circle of a profession as they face social exclusion and very often are treated as slaves who by birth are manual scavengers. They are denied various rights, be it education, dignity and other employment opportunities as well. Similar is the story of Mr. Sunil Yadav who was a TISS Student at the day time a manual scavenger at night, Sunil had a keen study in education and was pursuing his Doctoral from TISS but being a manual scavenger by birth had to take over the same job at Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) after his father died. He decided to pursue his education along with his job. For 14 long months, he was denied of study leave and became the only one in the history of 150 years of BMC to even apply for the study leave.
When talking about manual scavenging an aspect that should be seen is a trend where we see a decline in the total number of men engaged and a rising number of women taking over the role at lesser wages. Women are often paid as little as rupees 25-30 per month or very often grains and even stale food with no money as their wages. The discrimination increases manifold when it comes to women. The ‘profession’ is passed on from a woman to her daughter-in-law and so on as it is often impossible to step out of the vicious circle. The immediate compensation Of INR 40,000 that manual scavengers are entitled to is never enough and very often the re-employment or rehabilitation also doesn’t solves the issue as there is social exclusion and untouchability. In the Meerut City of Uttar Pradesh, which also has the maximum number of manual scavengers amongst all other states, the discrimination against women manual scavengers is evident in various ways, one of the ways is, ‘women in the localities when passing by the houses of upper castes are expected to cover their head and walk barefoot’. They are often paid with bare grains to survive.
Manual Scavenging is a matter of shame for the entire nation, but the practice prevails because of the loopholes in the law and policies, and lack of intent to implement those successfully. We do see a change in the way policies are being designed or the penalties are being increased but no major change is visible on the ground, clearly, the policies designed are not being implemented and the accountability is not being defined clearly.A major aspect that we need to focus upon is the betterment of Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) and mechanizing the entire process by constructing twin pit toilets, initiating behavior change campaigns. Swachh Bharat Mission being a very good example of it. The government has to ensure the worst form of caste-based slavery is eradicated at all levels.
Cover Image: Vikas Choudhary
About the author: Fariha is a first-year Master’s in Public Policy student. She has previously worked with WaterAid India leading the Urban WASH Project working on the cause of mechanizing the scavenging process and eradicating manual scavenging and untouchability. Her key research interests are human rights and discrimination based on religion, caste and gender.