Manual Scavenging: Dignity Down The Drain

Introduction

“For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

~-Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Manual scavenging has been undoubtedly, one of the greatest evils plaguing our country for decades. The degrading practice does threatens not only human dignity but also health of our sanitation workers. The prevalence of the practice also perpetuates other social evils such as discrimination and casteism, in the Indian society.

Although the government has attempted to curb the practice, the sad reality is that it still prevails. Recently, the government launched the “Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge”, an incentivised programme, which aims to ensure the safety of sanitation workers engaged in ‘hazardous cleaning’. Further, the Union Government was all set to introduce the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 in the Monsoon Session of the Parliament. However, since the Monsoon Session was cut short by 8 days, the Bill remains to be put on the table of the House.

The fact that the government is undertaking numerous initiatives to address the issue of manual scavenging suggests that the practice has begun to be viewed as one of grave nature, affecting human rights and therefore, requiring such attention. However, there is still a long way to go considering the inadequacies of the prevailing laws and government schemes. This article attempts to deal with the various issues related to manual scavenging, ranging from its relationship with the caste-system in the country, perils of the practice itself, defects in the existing laws, the new Bill introduced in this regard, and the condition of manual scavengers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caste-ridden Reality

Manual scavenging in India is inextricably linked with caste. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had remarked that “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.” Caste, occupation and labour have been historically interlinked.[1] Manual scavengers constitute a caste-based occupational group; those employed as manual scavengers come from the lowest rungs of society,[2] and most commonly from the Valmiki community. This system has become rigid and institutionalised, and often gains legitimacy from religious scriptures.

The practice finds a sociological basis in the purity and pollution theory – certain jobs and activities are regarded as “polluting” which are not limited to physical uncleanliness, but also ritual impurity. Cleaning or carrying human excreta, cleaning drains or sewers are considered to be both physically and ritually polluting.

Besides discrimination from dominant groups, sanitation workers often suffer from in-caste discrimination as well. This often hinders them from accessing benefits associated with the NREGA and Schedule Caste-oriented welfare schemes.

Perils of the Profession

As of January 31, 2019, the government had identified 62,904 manual scavengers. The first problem lies in the fact that the government refuses to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of the matter, which is evidenced by blatant denial or underreporting of those involved in manual scavenging on numerous occasions. In a 2018 survey, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment task force recorded a four-fold increase in those cleaning pit latrines in a single year. Many states which had previously recorded a zero or miniscule count also showed a significant increase in numbers.[3] Out of 711 districts, the survey was carried out only for 164 districts, and was completed only for 121 districts, after considerable delay. State governments have only notified the National Safai Karamchari Commission of small figures, and that too, with considerable tardiness. The NSKC claim its power to bring about effective change is limited, as it a non-statutory body.

Additionally, the nature of the job is such that it often involves sub-contracting to temporary and informal workers; especially in case of high-risk tasks. There is absence of legal protection to those engaged via subcontracting. Sanitation workers who work on a contractual basis rarely have any economic safety nets. Rather, contractual sanitation workers (as opposed to government-employed sanitation workers) are worse off in term of wages, paid leave, employment benefits such as Provident Fund and Employees’ State Insurance, and also do not have proper identification at work.[4] These workers often earn remuneration only in kind – in the form of leftover food and second-hand clothes. There is lack of any regulatory framework to protect the rights of those working on an informal or temporary basis. Permanent government workers earn better wages and employment benefits such as health insurance, and overall job security than contractual and informal workers, which is the primary reason why sanitation work under the government is still highly sought after.

Further, the lives of sanitation workers continue to be imperiled due to exposure to poisonous gases such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, esters, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.[5]

Besides health hazards and lack of regular pay, they also do not have equal access to education, healthcare facilities, to the extent that it can be termed as social exclusion. Human and employment rights are often violated because there are few real opportunities to move away from traditional low-grade occupations. They cannot escape from the shadow of being a “lower caste”’ which not only hampers their chances of earning a better livelihood, but also reduces the educational and employment opportunities for their future generations.

Defects in Existing Laws

P.V. Narsimha Rao, the former Prime Minister was passionate about resolving the inhumane practice of manual scavenging, and it was in his reign that the first law was passed called the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. In 2013, the Act was amended and came to be called as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (the 2013 Act”). The 2013 Act places more emphasis on rehabilitation.

However, much like its predecessor, it has not achieved much success. In 2014, the Apex Court had observed in the Safai Karamchari Andolan case that the government survey had “shown remarkably little progress and has identified only a miniscule proportion of the number of people engaged in manual scavenging…”[6]

In fact, the Act is paradoxical in the sense that while the title of the Act presents the aim as the complete eradication of the practice by prohibiting employment of manual scavengers, the text merely focusses on better infrastructure facilities such as protective gears for the workers rather than removing the practice altogether. This, in a way, leads to the normalisation of the practice. Further, the Act also intends to prohibit construction of “insanitary latrine”, a toilet which requires human excreta to be cleaned or handled manually.[7] However, there are still around 2.6 million insanitary latrines in the country. Furthermore, the biggest loophole in the Act is in the definition of “manual scavengers” under Section 2(1)(g). A “manual scavenger” is “a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit…”.[8] This definition is restrictive from the point of view of the kind of waste that is handled and hence excludes a number of people engaged in cleaning and handling other solid and liquid wastes such as biomedical waste. It also creates a distinction between manual scavengers and those who clean sewer/septic tank.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (“SBA”) was launched with the goal of making India ‘open-defecation free’, and providing every household with a toilet. The central focus of the SBA is on sanitation workers. While the programme seems promising, it has the effect of perpetuating the caste-ridden manual scavenging system. There have been more than 10 crore toilets built under the programme, however, majority of these are not based on the two-pit system. This system would have done away with need of manual scavenging, but as per analysis of a 2017-2018 government survey, only 13% percent of toilets were built as per this model. Such efforts under the SBA appear to be myopic at best, since the task of maintenance of such facilities still remains with those coming from lower castes, such as Valmikis and Doms. Maintenance of the toilets and drainage/sewerage systems is also an important step, but much heed is not paid to this aspect.

The yardstick of success of the programme has been the number of toilets constructed, and not whether it has resulted in increased individual toilet use. But the programme would be a true success when people are persuaded of the benefits of individual toilets, and switch to using them in the long term. However, this undoubtedly involves behaviour change, which may not be easy to bring about.

With Phase II of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Gramin) approved, the focus has now shifted to improving sanitation standards through Solid and Liquid Waste Management, and attaining ODF+ certification in villages. This change in priorities indicates that the goals from Phase I have been sufficiently fulfilled. However, the crisis has not been fully averted. This may not be accurate as the achieved 100% ODF status on paper may not translate to. There has been lack of verification from the government’s side and various reports which undermine the 100 percent ODF claim, and show that 100% ODF status is not a ground reality. The issue is further exacerbated due to inconsistent reporting of numbers, lack of verification after construction of toilets, lack of water facilities, and even non usage of the constructed toilets.

Amendment Bill 2020: The Correct Way Forward?

The main feature of the new Bill is that it intends to completely mechanise sewer cleaning. It seeks to replace the term “man-hole” with “machine-hole”. For this purpose, the government will directly transfer funds to the ‘sanitation workers’ instead of any middlemen. While it is high time that the manual cleaning of sewers is replaced with machines, the fact that these workers are being given funds to purchase the machinery strengthens the notion that this work is only for the community of people already engaged in it. Further, the Bill proposes to increase both the fine and punishment for engaging anyone for cleaning septic tanks and sewers. Under the 2013 Act, the punishment was imprisonment up to 5 years or a fine of Rs. 5 Lakhs or both.[9] However, the question is will this stringency improve the condition considering hardly any cases are registered under the Act. Additionally, the Bill provides for setting up a 24×7 national helpline service to report violations.

Although, the Bill attempts to propose some promising changes, their effective implementation is questionable. Additionally, much like its predecessors, the Bill shifts its focus from completely eradicating the problem to providing only infrastructure facilities to manual scavengers. Moreover, the Bill is marked with procedural impropriety as it was kept a secret and not opened for public consultation which is the prescribed procedure.

Protective Gears and COVID-19

Under the 2013 Act, a person wearing “protective gear” is not qualified to be termed as a manual scavenger. However, the term “protective gear” has not been defined anywhere. Moreover, in 2019 the Supreme Court had pointed out that there is a lack of protective equipment for manual scavengers in the country. A recent video of 4 sanitation workers cleaning an open drainage system without masks, gloves or any protective gear in Tamil Nadu had surfaced. However, the fact that the incident did not gain much attention is proof of the normalisation of the practice of manual scavenging especially without any protective equipment in India.

Additionally, the ongoing pandemic has not been any kind to the sanitation workers. While frontline workers such as medical professionals and the police have received their share of recognition and appreciation for their contributions during the difficult time of the pandemic, the solid waste management workers, who have also been working during this time have not been given due credit. These people have put their lives at stake to clean wastes such as biomedical waste, which has especially increased during the pandemic. There have been reports of sanitation workers and their kin being given orders to work in hospital wards. What is alarming is the fact that these people have to clean such hazardous wastes without any protective gears. In this regard, several sanitation workers have even lost their lives.

Moreover, since the introduction of the vaccine against COVID-19 in the country, the government has focussed on the sanitation workers minus the manual scavengers, for some reason. Although the first person to get vaccinated in the country was a manual scavenger, it means nothing when the remaining lot is neglected. These people have been working continuously throughout the pandemic without any policy protection, where a lot of them even lost their lives. They are already vulnerable and prone to deadly diseases due to the nature of their work. Therefore, the least that the government can do is make the vaccination of these people a priority. Otherwise, the fact that the first person to get vaccinated in India was a manual scavenger does not matter at all.

Rehabilitation Programmes: A Sham?

For the financial year 2018-19, the government had allocated Rs. 20 crores for the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS).[10] SRMS was introduced in 2007 to rehabilitate manual scavengers to alternative employments. It provided for a one-time cash assistance of Rs. 40,000 to identified manual scavengers and their dependants. However, the one-time cash assistance has proven to be insufficient to prevent sanitation workers from backsliding into scavenging work. Those who choose to leave the profession find it difficult to find alternative employment elsewhere, either due to lack of training and relevant skills, or due to social stigma that is perpetually attached to manual scavenging. However, as noted by Mr. Ramdas Athawale, there is no record of deaths of manual scavengers during the pandemic.

In the budget for the year 2020-21, Rs. 110 crores have been allocated for the SRM. However, the government has still not released any funds for rehabilitation programmes.

Conclusion

The root of the problem lies not only in the attitude of the society which is still perpetuating archaic notions of caste hierarchy, but also with the administrative agencies which can effectuate change with the power they possess. Therefore, denial of the existence of the practice in the first place, by states like Tamil Nadu, is rather unfortunate. The change in the attitude is particularly significant since the stigmatisation has various socio-cultural and economic manifestations.

Firstly, the problem is strengthened by the artificial boundaries between manual scavengers and sanitation workers, which need to be done away with. As noted by the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment in his response to a parliamentary question in September 2019, there were no deaths reported while manual scavenging, although the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis had recorded deaths of persons while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. A total of 340 workers had lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks from 2016 to 2020, which is an alarming 28 percent increase from the preceding five year period.[11]

Secondly, sanitation workers are constantly subject to degrading working conditions, and on most occasions their rights are not secured. They also suffer due to administrative inertia, and have to rely on trade unions and civil groups to bring their grievances to the fore. However, even union support may not be able to address the problem comprehensively, if the scale of operation of such unions in not too wide, or may be focused on workers’ economic rights and rehabilitation, and not ensuring well-monitored and safer working conditions for them.[12] Their poor socio-economic status and a cycle of inter-generational backwardness stymie not only their chances of alternative employment, but also has deprived them of living meaningful and dignified lives. This exclusion of social and economic rights and political participation, which has been termed “living mode exclusion”[13] keeps manual scavengers from participating fully and freely in the society.

Thirdly, there is the issue of pending compensation; families of workers who suffered sewer deaths remain uncompensated. Reports reveal that a staggering 93.75 percent of victims’ families in Maharashtra, for the period from 1993 to 2020, did not receive any compensation.[14]

Fourthly, there is a general lack of awareness – not only among sanitation workers about alternative employment, beneficial government schemes, safety gear, employment benefits, and their full salary, but also a dismal lack of civic awareness among citizens with respect to waste segregation and proper methods of waste disposal.

Fifthly, although the proposed bill seems to promise a lot of things for the betterment of the conditions of the manual scavengers, it implicitly reinforces the idea that the people already engaged in such activities are the only ones who are supposed to do it by providing funds to them for equipment. This restrains such people from breaking free from the fetters of manual scavenging and caste-based cruelties. The fact that the government is ready to provide money to engage in the practice (with equipment) instead of putting more efforts into eliminating it completely, which was the actual purpose of the 2013 Act, shows that the government is not willing to take steps towards breaking the linkage between caste and manual scavenging, and the atrocities faced by people engaged in the practice.

Lastly, the problem is not limited to the profession, but is systemic and structural in nature. Legislation is only a vehicle for effecting change. For real change to occur, new laws and provisions for stringent punishment would not suffice; change in perceptions within agencies and at the societal level is required, and caste barriers need to be actively broken. Unless systemic problems are dealt with first, new laws will only be a façade, and annihilation of the practice of manual scavenging would not be possible.

(This post has been authored by Parnika Goswami and Vrinda Nargas. Both authors are students at the National Law University, Jodhpur)

References

  1. Rajitha Sanaka, ‘The Diversified Form of Manual Scavenging and How it Perpetuates the Caste System’ (2019) 2 (1) Research Journal of the Royal Thimphu College.
  2. Chapter 2, 2.1, the National Commission for Safai Karamchari 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 (Combined Report).
  3. Id.
  4. Raees Muhammed, ‘The manacles of caste in sanitation work’ The Hindu (22 October 2020).
  5. Supra note i.
  6. Safai Karmachari Andolan & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., 2014 (3) AWC 2835 (SC).
  7. Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, § 2(1)(e), (2013).
  8. Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, § 2(1)(g), (2013).
  9. Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, § 9, (2013).
  10. Devashish Deshpande & Avani Kapur, ‘Accountability Initiative’, Centre for Policy Research (2019).
  11. ‘A dirty truth’ The Hindu (New Delhi, 10 February 2021).
  12. ‘Sanitation Worker Safety and Livelihoods in India: A Blueprint for Action—Phase 1: Understanding the Problem’, Dalberg Advisors, New Delhi, India (2017).
  13. Thorat, and S. Venkatesan, ‘Caste Conflict, Poverty and Human Development in India’ (Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi, 2004).
  14. Supra note xi.

Cite As: Parnika Goswami and Vrinda Nargas, ‘Manual Scavenging: Dignity Down the Drain’ (The Contemporary Law Forum, 7th May 2021) <https://tclf.in/2021/05/07/manual-scavenging-dignity-down-the-drain> date of access.

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