Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation wherein certain sub-castes of Dalits are condemned to manually clean, carry, dispose or handle human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. Though it has been constitutionally banned for more than 20 years now, it is still widely prevalent in the country. How do we make sure that no one is left behind in this transition?
The right to be free from manual scavenging is an economic, social, and cultural right. Over the years, various movements and organisations have been established to abolish this despicable practice, including an Act. The Indian Parliament passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (Human Rights Watch 2014) and while it has been constitutionally banned for more than 20 years now, it is prevalent in the country. In our research, we found that there is no proper data available on the issue and whatever official statistics are available to contradict each other.
Studies (Nigam & Dubey 2020) suggest that about 95% of the sanitation workers were from Scheduled Castes considered the lowest in Indian society and face discrimination in everyday life. Many reports facing discrimination when seeking other livelihood or education opportunities (Human Rights Watch 2014). While the problem is articulated using a human rights framework, the solutions must come from a network of multiple stakeholders. The challenge of rehabilitation is urgent and requires a comprehensive approach that moves beyond expanding income generation or providing loans, to focus on various aspects of waste management in urban and rural areas, and address the problem by taking a multi-sectoral approach.
The average lifespan of MS is reported to be much lower at 50 years, compared to 68 years for average Indians (Counterview 2014). Manual scavengers who earn about $5 a day usually wear no protective gear while standing in the waste that reaches chest high or when they crawl through the sludge (Institute of Social Studies Trust and Heinrich Boell Foundation, 2016)
Human Rights Watch (2014) study suggests that many MS experience health problems such as respiratory and parasitic infections, skin ailments and nausea. Further, the nature of the jobs leads to trauma with unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol addiction (ibid). Poor implementation of policies and casual/contractual nature of job renders them victims of wage theft and delays in payment (ibid). As the industry is not regulated, many manual scavengers are prone to die due to job-related accidents that are preventable by ensuring proper safety procedures. A study (Parth 2014) on manual scavengers in Mumbai estimates that an average of 20 workers dies per month from accidents, suffocation or exposure to toxic gases.
According to the National Commission for SafaiKaramcharis (NCSK), a statutory body set up by an act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers, it was found out that between 2016 and 2018, 123 manual scavengers have died on the job in India. However, the SafaiKaramchariAndolan, an organisation run by Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson, and working for the development of manual scavengers puts the casualty figure at 429 deaths for that period in Delhi alone. According to the India Census, 2011 open defecation is still widespread and there are about 2.6 million insanitary latrines 5 (dry toilets) that require cleaning by hand.
Down To Earth reports that the problem lies first in the design of the urban waste management and sewerage systems. Septic tanks have bad designs and vacuum tankers fail to extract faecal sludge from them. That is when manual cleaning becomes a necessity. And not just toilets, people cleaning public sewers, open drains, open defecation sites and railway tracks are equally prone to health hazards due to the exposure to toxic gases and pathogens.
The Smart Cities and Swachch Bharat Missions provide the necessary political foundation on which stakeholders can collaborate to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging. The struggle to end the practice that comes from a necessity has potential for solutions from the private sector but it has to work within the bureaucratic structures of the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) that sanction the public works. Further, as most of urban India is not connected to sewers, safe options for faecal sludge management are the need of the hour.
There are some policy interventions required too. For starters, the funds provided for building a toilet under the Swachch Bharat Mission are not sufficient to build one that does not require manual cleaning. Public entities and especially the Indian Railways should be made accountable to end manual scavenging and ensure rehabilitation of the workers. The Indian Railways is one of the largest employers of manual scavengers, with an unknown number on their rolls, IndiaSpend reported in November 2015. Most “sweepers” – as they are called, to mask their identity as scavengers – with the railways are employed through contractors, and they earn around Rs 200 per day, the portal reported.
A slew of other interventions is needed to end manual scavenging, the foremost alternative proposed by various stakeholders was of technological intervention (International Dalit Society Network, 2019). Apart from a couple of startup ideas not much has been done at State or at the National Level. Technology should not make the jobs of the community redundant rather by building the technical capacity (training of local bodies or sanitation inspectors about the act, safety procedure, technical knowhow of cleaning devices) of the community, technology should liberate them from this inhuman and hazardous task.
From a resource perspective, with rising water scarcity and increasing water prices, wastewater treatment has the potential to mature as a profitable intervention. Instead of treating it as a waste to be disposed of, wastewater should be considered a resource for recycling and reuse. A closed-loop system, which considers waste as a resource, also known as the circular economy, when applied to the wastewater sector in India could yield significant positive impacts towards better water management in the country. (Sugam and Neog 2016). Wastewater is one of the most under-exploited resources we have. It is a valuable resource from which energy, water, organics, phosphates, nitrogen, cellulose, rare earth and other resources can be extracted.
While some home-made startups are already working to remove the need for human intervention in cleaning waste, no solutions have been tried out at scale in India.
The change needed will come from a multi-stakeholder network that includes local government officials, private sector, health organizations, civil society organizations and community-based groups that will work to modernize sanitation servicing in Mumbai city and eradicate the need for manual scavenging.
A multi-stakeholder approach is important because diverse perspectives are needed to achieve higher-level outcomes such as a shift in attitudes towards a marginalized community. This necessitates addressing complex issues at a socio-political and cultural level that cannot be solved by one actor but requires mobilization for research and development in technology to work alongside community mobilization to raise awareness and drive action.
With reference to the systems approach framework, the multiple stakeholder network cannot work in isolation from local bodies and public sectors who are the chief employers of manual scavengers. Naturally, the overhaul of the system overnight is not the aim, but the need for a state-society dialogue is a start.
If you would like to collaborate on this topic or have any ideas or thoughts, please contact Rivika Bisht at email@example.com
About the Author
Rivika (LinkedIn) is a Masters student of Development Studies at the University of Melbourne with experience and interest in monitoring and evaluation, gender empowerment, livelihoods, cultural differences and coffee
Piyush Dhawan (LinkedIn) is the Cofounder of the Circular Collective was awarded the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship last year to work on the topic of Circular Economy. He has for the past decade been working with Bilaterals and Multilaterals on a range of topics including business and biodiversity, Vision 2030 SDGs and Future of Indian Cities.
Counterview (2014). “A New Study Finds that Manual Scavengers in India Live in Segregated Localities without Any Social or Economic Protection.” Counterview.org, January 15. (https://counterview.org/2014/01/15/a-new-study-finds-that-manual-scavengers-in-india-live-in-segregated-localities-without-any-social-or-economic-protection/).
Dubey, S. Y., & Murphy, J. W. (2020). Manual Scavenging in Mumbai: The Systems of Oppression. Humanity & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0160597620964760
Human Rights Watch (2014). Cleaning Human Waste: “Manual Scavenging”, Caste, and Discrimination in India. The United States of America.
FSG (2018). The Water of Systems Change. Accessed online https://www.fsg.org/publications/water_of_systems_change
International Dalit Solidarity Network. (2019, 12 29). Manual Scavenging. Retrieved from https://idsn.org/key-issues/manual-scavenging/
Parth, M. N. 2014. “India’s Sewer Cleaners Keep Working Despite Ban on Job.” Los Angeles Times, July 4. Retrieved October 17, 2020
Sugam, RK and Neog K. (2016). Circular Pathways for Municipal Wastewater Management in India: A Practitioner's Guide. Washington: 2030 Water Resources Group.