Manual scavenging and the Swachh Bharat story

In 1993, India outlawed manual scavenging by passing the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. In 2013, The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act came into being to further reinforce the ban on manual scavenging. Obviously, the intervening 20 years hadn’t done much to make this ban work.

The numbers bear this out. In the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011, 182,505 families in rural India were found to make their livelihoods from manual scavenging. Considering that our 2011 Census found 740,078 households across the country with dry latrines, this is not surprising, no? In fact, after the passing of The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, the Centre recognised 12,742 manual scavengers across 13 Indian states. Considering the numbers from the Socio-Economic Caste Census just two years before this, this number is without a doubt a gross understatement.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment began a new survey process last year to count India’s manual scavengers. It’s disheartening that 25 years after outlawing the profession we are only beginning to count the number of workers actually engaged in that profession. This includes people who collect night soil and clean dry latrines and also septic tanks and sewers. And also people hired by one of India’s largest employers, the Railways. Because even though bio-toilets are finally being installed in railway coaches, (a subject that demands a post all of its own), many trains still have the old-style toilets where poop falls onto the railway tracks. And this poop has to be cleaned off by manual scavengers.

Apart from the dehumanising aspect of this profession, the other story is the actual physical harm it causes to the people in its employ. In most developed countries, sanitation workers are given safety suits and respiratory gear and are mandatorily required to use safety equipment while entering sewers. In Hong Kong, a sewer worker needs 15 different licences before they can enter a manhole. In India though, we are just fine with sanitation workers entering manholes, drains and sewers stripped down to their undergarments and unclogging blockages with their bare hands. Apart from all the toxic material in our wastewater, these manholes and septic systems are also methane chambers that can kill pretty much instantly. In fact, estimates say more than 22,000 sanitation workers lose their lives every year either at work or due to toxic exposure from the sewers and septic tanks they clean. In the first six months of 2019 alone, 50 people have died across 8 Indian states with the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) adding that one person has died every 5 days since January 2017 cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India.

The Swachh Bharat Mission has promised to eradicate manual scavenging by 2019. But the news doesn’t seem to bear out hope for this promise. To eradicate manual scavenging, it is not enough to build hundreds of toilets. We need to ensure that these toilets are connected to proper septic and sanitation systems that eliminate the need for people to manually clean them. We need to invest in upgrading our country’s sanitation infrastructure to ensure manual scavenging doesn’t become necessary to clean any sewer or drain or septic tank. In developed countries, sewers are well lit and ventilated to ensure they don’t become oxygen-deficient nor allow noxious gases to gather and eventually explode. With our civic infrastructure, this may not be immediately possible to replicate. We can nevertheless ensure our sanitation systems are remediated and treated to eliminate the build-up of poisonous gases. Make it the law to ensure our sanitation workers get full-body safety equipment. Make it a criminal offence for companies and contractors and housing societies and business complexes and government offices who flout this law. Make sure all sanitation workers across the country are licensed by civic bodies.

And yes, increase the wages for sanitation workers. Right now, our sanitation workers get a pittance for putting their lives and limbs on the line, clearing our shit up. It is often not enough for a family to survive on. As their children grow up, they see no option but to continue this profession because the lack of funds growing up has not given them the opportunities to explore any other option in life.

And definitely, convert toilets in long-distance trains, and public toilets into effective, efficient bio-toilets.

However, even if all this happens, manual scavenging will continue unless we as individuals take ownership of our actions. Our sanitation infrastructure is bust right now. While our government upgrades it, we need to be conscious of how we dispose of our waste. Use fewer chemical cleaners. Compost at home religiously. Treat septic tanks kindly. Reduce waste. Recycle as much as possible. Segregate all waste. And if you see someone jumping into a sewer or drain or septic tank with no safety equipment and no respiratory gear, immediately report it on the Safai Karamchari Andolan website.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse

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