An Indian manual scavenger looks on as he cleans a manhole in the old quarters of New Delhi on March 21, 2018. Photo: AFP/Chandan Khanna

Despite a two-decade ban, India has 53,236 documented “manual scavengers” who handle human waste from latrines or sewers. And their numbers are growing, according to an official survey by a federal government task force.

The survey shows a four-fold increase from the 2017 data accessed by Asia Times. However, the data is incomplete as the survey has been carried out in only 121 of the country’s 600 districts.

Moreover, the survey only included manual scavengers who remove night soil from cesspool and privies and clean pit latrines. A large number of those who clean septic tanks, sewers and railway tracks were not accounted for in the mentioned survey and will be included in the upcoming phase two of the survey to be conducted later this year.

The task force was set up by government think tank NITI Ayog in November 2017 and includes members from different ministries, the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation, the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and Safai Karmchari Andolan — the last three are campaigns by the manual scavengers.

However, Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson, who founded the Safai Karmchari Andolan (SKA), was critical of the survey. He said: “There is no focus on what they have to achieve and by when. They took ideas from us and never used them. They advertised the survey in English newspapers, but manual scavengers do not read them. For the census, they can go door to door, but for manual scavengers, they ask them to come to them.”

Government’s efforts falling short

Activists allege that national and state governments do not reveal the actual figures related to the number of manual scavengers as it will reflect poorly on them.

After the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation 2013 Act came into being, the government recognized 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states for rehabilitation. Activists, politicians and even the Supreme Court have said this number was an under-representation.

Even major government efforts have not improved the situation for manual scavengers. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to build 20 million toilets to eradicate open defecation. Manual scavengers hoped that these toilets would have better infrastructure and modern designs not requiring their work.

“The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan hasn’t made things better either as dry latrines are being built under the scheme,” said Jyoti Prabha Naik, an activist who works with manual scavengers in the eastern state of Odisha. Although the campaign encourages building composting toilets, bio-toilets and leach pits, people mostly choose to build toilets with septic tanks and dry pits, which have to be serviced manually.

Some government policies have actively backtracked the efforts to eradicate this dehumanizing profession.

While as many as 300 manual scavengers died on the job in 2017 alone, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reduced the budgetary allocation for manual scavengers by 95%. The Self-Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was also reduced from 4.5 billion rupees in 2014-15 to only 50 million rupees in 2017-18.

Loopholes in the law

Manual scavenging was banned in India in 1993. Employing people to the profession carries possible imprisonment penalties for up to one year and fine of 50,000 rupees. Still, demand for scavengers remains high. According to the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 1,82,505 rural households in India were dependent on manual scavenging for their income.

The 2013 Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act aimed to introduce safety measures for manual scavengers and encouraged their rehabilitation. Activists and manual scavengers have since criticized the law on the grounds that it does not strictly ban the practice.

A major employer of manual scavengers is the Indian Railways. However, Indian Railways has announced that it will build 1,40,000 bio-toilets by 2019 in all the coaches on its trains.

Manual scavenging also persists due to the continued presence of “insanitary latrines,” where human waste has to be cleaned physically and not by a machine or sewage system. The majority of such latrines are dry latrines, which don’t use water. According to the 2011 Census, there are about 2.6 million dry latrines in India.

As long as such “insanitary” toilets remain, there will be manual scavengers as enforcing the law flails.

They are underpaid and their social mobility remains stagnant. Kuna Naik, a 40-year-old manual scavenger from Bhubaneswar in Odisha, said: “Everyone in my family is engaged in manual scavenging. We get paid about 300 rupees on a good day, but we don’t get work every day.”

Naik also added that protective gear like gloves, gas masks and boots are often not provided by employers, in violation of the 2013 law, leading to diseases and even death. There is no proper accountability system in place, making such loopholes in the law larger.

The 2013 Act allows manual scavenging if the employer provides ‘protective gear’; However, the Act does not define what constitutes ‘protective gear,’ creating a possibility for employers to exploit this provision, say activists.

Social exclusion and gender gap

Manual scavengers are also subjected to social exclusion, both for belonging to a low caste and being in a stigmatized profession. They are often denied access to places of worship, public sources of water and excluded from cultural events.

A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Cleaning Human Waste released” revealed that manual scavenging is also plagued by a gender pay gap.

The report states: “Women who clean dry toilets in rural areas sometimes receive little or no cash wages, reflecting long-established customary practices, but instead receive daily rations of leftover food, grain during harvest, old clothes during festival times and access to community and upper caste land for grazing livestock and collecting firewood – all given at the discretion of the households they serve.”

In areas where caste-based untouchability is still practiced towards lower caste Dalits, which most manual scavengers are, food is either dropped into their hands or thrown in front of them, says the HRW report.

Men usually get to work with the railways, municipality or other public spaces where the pay is better. Women take up the poorly-paid job of cleaning dry latrines in residential areas and villages. Wilson added: “Patriarchy made women clean where no one else wants to clean up. Rehabilitation is also more difficult for women as most of them are middle-aged and elderly. What are the alternate livelihood options that can be developed?”

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