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Manual Scavenging: NOT CASTE, BUT POVERTY FACTOR, By Dr S Saraswathi, 29 March, 2017 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 29 March 2017

Manual Scavenging


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Reports of death of workers engaged in cleaning and repairing manholes still make front page news in India, in the times of ‘Swachch bharat’. Recently, three persons died each in Bangalore and Cuddalore, two each in Vijayawada and Rampur, while working in underground manholes. Inhaling toxic gases was the major cause. Prescribed safety precautions were reported to be missing in all the cases.


The reports carry horrific photographs of manual underground cleaning and heart rending tales of the nature of the work and the helpless state of victims dying due to suffocation. The hazardous occupation of manual scavenging continues even in the centre of mega cities that boast of world class stadia, theatres, and palatial bungalows not excluding the capital. The Safai Karamchari Andolan, founded by social activist and Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson in 1994, mentions 1,269 deaths due to manual scavenging during 2014-16.


Manual scavenging - depicted as a “national shame” by Mahatma Gandhi - is prohibited under law. But, it continues even officially in many States under the local bodies. To hide its unabated existence well into the 21st century, all that the authorities can do is to underestimate the number.


Manual scavenging amounts to denial of constitutional as well as human rights. Political freedom in India has not brought about economic freedom; and economic liberalisation has not led to occupational freedom for some sections of the population. And those who enjoy freedoms have not liberated their minds from crude practices of engaging their fellow citizens in degrading and dangerous services.


According to the Socio-Economic Survey done along with the census of 2011, there are 1.8 lakh manual scavengers across the country, Madhya Pradesh topping the list with over 23,000. Even Punjab, forward in many respects, returned about 12,000 manual scavengers.


The census of 2011 provides a much higher figure of 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India with Maharashtra topping with nearly 64,000 households engaged in this work. There are three types of manual scavengers in India – those who remove human excreta from latrines, those who clean septic tanks, and those who clean gutters and drains. Cleaning railway tracks is another form by itself.


The 2011 census noted the number of dry latrines as 2.6 million, and the number of toilets where wastes are flushed into open drains as 1,314, 652 and the number of dry latrines manually cleaned as 794,390. Most of these – 73 per cent – were found in rural areas. This situation is the reason for persistence of manual scavenging as an occupation and manual scavengers as an exclusive group very often given caste names also. Worse still, it has ended in mentioning manual scavenging work of the types mentioned as a separate occupation even in some official information on job openings.


In 2014, on the basis of surveys conducted in the States, 11,000 manual scavengers were identified in 23 States. In seven States, 4.5 lakh dry latrines were identified. The Supreme Court, in a case in 2014, declared the number of dry latrines in the country as 96 lakh that are manually cleaned. Thus, the number given by various authorities as provided to them, varies enormously which shows that the country is at least ashamed of its cleanliness status and tends to downplay the true situation.


Questions regarding the number of manual scavengers which is a crucial point in rehabilitation operation were raised by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis in Chennai a year ago while investigating the death of four workers while cleaning a septic tank in a hotel. In some places, manual scavenging is offered even by persons engaged in other occupations to supplement their income because of their background in the work and/or association with others regularly engaged in this.


The first anti-manual scavenging Act was passed in 1993. It provided punishment for employing manual scavengers and constructing dry latrines with imprisonment up to one year and/or fine up to Rs. 2,000. But, no conviction was ever made under the Act. In 2013, Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act was passed which reiterated the provisions of 1993 Act and enhanced the fine amount as Rs 50,000. This Act clearly prohibits construction or maintenance of insanitary toilets and employment of scavengers in hazardous cleaning of a sewer or septic tank.   The offences were made cognizable and non-bailable.


Such provisions are not generally implemented given the poverty of the poor leaving them no opportunity to choose their occupation and the abominable state of sanitation in the country on the whole. Only when fatal cases come to light, laws are referred to and then also mostly settled with negotiated compensation.


Punishments are rarely heard. Service conduct rules are considered adequate to prevent recurrence of the offence. In the Bangalore incident where 60 persons died while cleaning a manhole, the Supreme Court fixed a compensation of Rs. one lakh for every death in manhole. The Act called for a survey of manual scavengers in urban and rural areas within a time-bound framework. As long as open defecation and dry latrines continue, manual scavenging is not likely to die. As for removing drainage blocks, there is no alternative to mechanical cleaning.


Under the Act, every local authority (municipality or panchayat), cantonment board, or railway authority is responsible for surveying its area to identify manual scavengers. Insanitary latrines must be given notice to demolish them or convert them as sanitary latrines and build new ones.


There prevails an opinion that issues of sanitation and caste system are inter-linked and must be addressed together. This is but an admission of our failure in fixing priorities in development and progress and blame traditional notions for our inability to free our minds. Manual scavenging is not chosen and promoted by any caste voluntarily. It is the occupation, which is adopted in the absence of an alternative, which gives a label to the caste. Surely, given a chance to throw away the derogatory occupation, the scavenger will not remain a scavenger and can get rid of social handicap.


Sanitation – whether it is household toilet or public drains – is an issue of building infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. Some of the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India have revealed that the funds made available to the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers and their Dependents were either not spent or under-utilised.  If local authorities and State governments take the Act seriously and plunge into action, an end can be found for the menace of manual scavenging and for social disabilities attached with it for at least coming generations.


Therefore, we have to broaden our vision to widen skill development schemes to rehabilitate liberated scavengers. Vigilance committees must be formed in every tehsil and district and a monitoring committee at State level as provided in the Act so that this law can be implemented in letter and spirit.


Availability of labour and that too cheap labour promotes manual labour in many jobs in India.  Unfortunately, this mentality seems to be present in applying manual scavenging. It is the employer – organisation or individual – who has to take the initiative to lift the workers from the bottomless pit. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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