The invisible ones

Can you solve this riddle?

I sleep in a hole

Who am I, you ask?

I keep within for hours, clearing the rut,

Which is an explicit output of your gut

I am the Invisible one doing the work

so you’ll be able to keep your hands clean

Do you feel proud?

This literary composition may be a glimpse into the lives of manual scavengers in India.

Manual Scavenging : An Endless Cycle of False Promises & Failed Policies –  Law School Policy Review & Kautilya Society

A manual scavenger inside a sewer

Manual scavenging is outlined as “removing human waste from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, gutters and sewers.

The practice is driven by caste, class, and financial gain divides. Across much of India, individuals from communities that historically worked as “manual scavengers” still collect human waste, load it into cane baskets or metal troughs, and carry it on their heads.

Women typically clean, dry toilets, men and women clean human waste from open sites, gutters, and drains. Men are called upon to do the a lot of physically stringent work of cleaning sewers and septic tanks

Given conditions like accumulated harmful gases, harmful microorganism growths, and poor visibility, manual scavengers risk lives operating to clear such areas. The quantity of individuals killed while cleaning sewers and septic tanks have increased over the previous few years. 2019 saw the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in the past 5 years. 100 workers were killed while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. This is often a sixty one increase as compared to 2018, that saw sixty eight cases of comparable deaths.

Even after such an advancement in technology, it’s still rampant, killing 1000+ masses each year and diseasing thousands.

In 1993, the govt of India enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act that prohibited the utilization of manual scavengers for manually cleaning dry latrines and also the construction of dry toilets, that is, toilets that don’t operate with a flush. It provided for imprisonment of up to a year and a fine.

On September 6, 2013, the Act was followed by the Indian Parliament passing The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It acknowledged the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers & within the Act, it committing itself yet again to ending manual scavenging. Seven months later, on March 27, 2014, the Indian Supreme Court held that India’s constitution needs state intervention to abolish manual scavenging and “rehabilitate” all people engaged in the practice.

Key features of the Act were:

  • Prohibits the development or maintenance of insanitary toilets
  • Prohibits the engagement or employment of anyone as a manual scavenger
  • Violations may end in a years’ imprisonment or a fine of INR 50,000 or both
  • Prohibits a person from being engaged or employed for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank
  • Offenses under the Act are cognizable and non-bailable
  • Calls for a survey of manual scavengers in urban and rural areas within a time-bound framework

 This meant not only ending the practice but also ending the abuses faced by communities engaged in manual scavenging.

The two-pronged strategy of the Government of India, that is eliminating unhealthful latrines through demolition and conversion into sanitary latrines, and developing a comprehensive rehabilitation package for manual scavengers through a survey, looks excellent. It has also adopted legislative and policy efforts to end manual scavenging. These include commitments to modernize sanitation in recent years, so there is no further need for manual disposal of feces and prohibitions on engaging anyone to do this work. 

However, as a result of these policies aren’t being properly enforced, individuals stay unaware of their right to refuse this role, and those who do refuse may face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the collaboration of local government officials.

  • According to a national survey conducted in 18 States, 48,345 manual scavengers have been identified till January 31, 2020. This data isn’t proper. We need to identify all individuals currently engaged in manual scavenging and those involved in the practice since it was outlawed.
  • We need to ensure that rehabilitation entitlements under the 2013 Act—including monetary help, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, and alternative legal and programmatic assistance—are available to manual scavenging communities.
  • We need to strictly enforce the law against local government officials who themselves employ people to work as manual scavengers.
  • Despite the introduction of several mechanized systems for sewage cleaning, within the method continues. One way to bring about an end to the practice would be for the government to live up to its promise of mechanizing sewer cleaning.
  • A more community-centric model should be taken, where the entire community is given more opportunities to help them come out manual scavenging.

The state and society need to take an active interest in the issue and look into all possible options to assess and subsequently eradicate this practice.