Manual scavenging

Manual scavenging

- Tania Bhambhani

Manual Scavenging is the act of manually handling excreta with the help of buckets, brooms, and shovels in an insanitary dry latrine, pit, sewer, etc. The workers are called manual scavengers and move the excreta using tin plates and brooms into the baskets and dispose of them several kilometers away. Assigning manual scavenging as a caste-associated occupation has increased the discrimination and social stigma associated with untouchability. Furthermore, it is a dehumanizing act similar to slavery and goes against human rights.

There are more than a million latrines in India, dry latrines accounting in lakhs, 70 percent in rural areas, and 30 percent in urban areas. Along with caste segmentation, gender division is also present in performing manual scavenging. The females clean dry toilets and carry wastes to disposal sites, whereas males clean out the septic tanks and sewers. The economic reason for this distribution is - the municipality pays better for cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Waste disposal and private toilet cleaning pay less than the municipality, hence given to females.

Moreover, without the use of protective gear, the workers are prone to severe diseases. Skin and blood infections, eye infections, respiratory infections and disorders, typhoid, and cholera are few examples of illnesses due to manual scavenging. The death rate of manual scavengers is high. To stop the practice of manual scavenging, the Central Government passed a law in 1993, "The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993." Under this act, the construction of dry latrines and employers of manual scavengers were punishable for up to one year in prison and a fine of Rs 2000. For 20 years, there was no conviction under this law as its implementation wasn't strict.
In 2013, the government passed new legislation and formulated rules. The law was termed "The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013." The Supreme Court declared a final order after listening to the signed appeal about manual scavenging on 27 March 2014. Elimination of latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and maintenance of a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation were few objectives under the act. Ending manual scavenging and the abuse faced by manual scavengers was the intention of the law.

Lastly, in 2020, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020, was established for total industrialization of cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Despite the legislation passed, the practice of manual scavenging continues. In India, there are a million cases of manual scavenging with the state of Maharashtra at the top of the list. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan are few other states with a high rate of manual scavenging. These show that the government recognized the injustice but failed to execute the necessary policies to address the problem.

State representatives, elected village councils and municipal corporations fail to implement the central government law but instead encourage manual scavenging. They recruit people, as per caste, for this practice, even if they are qualified for much better jobs. Women and men who try to quit working as manual scavengers get threatened, harassed, pressured, and are unable to find work in any other occupation. On informing the police about the threats, they refuse to register due to caste bias and local government officials. They don't have the choice to quit, facing pressure from their respective communities, not even allowed to miss one day of cleaning toilets.
In conclusion, manual scavenging is a caste and gender-discriminating occupation, continuing even after all the laws and legislations due to the poor enactment by the government. This should be immediately banned as without any protective gear, workers are prone to many diseases, and the low wages make getting healthcare more difficult and survival tougher.