Manual scavenging remains a blot on India’s governance, considering it was outlawed 25 years ago, and yet, since 2017, one manual scavenger has died every five days, as per data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.
Manual scavenging remains a blot on India’s governance, considering it was outlawed 25 years ago, and yet, since 2017, one manual scavenger has died every five days, as per data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. Most of the times, standard safety practices weren’t followed and the deceased had not been provided any safety gear. For a bare minimum income, in a practice that reinforces age-old caste beliefs, manual scavengers take on grave risk to life and limb—from toxic gases in sewer lines to infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis, respiratory disorders from manually removing excreta/waste. Ironically, precisely because manual scavenging has been long outlawed, states have resorted to simply under-reporting the population of manual scavengers in their respective jurisdictions—some have even claimed that they don’t have a single manual scavenger. Despite such under-reporting, their numbers, as per a Union government task force, have grown four-fold since the last time such an exercise was conducted.
The definition of a “manual scavenger” as per the law doesn’t recognise septic tank and sewer-line cleaners as manual scavengers. A large number of toilets, including many built under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), in the absence of a sewerage system, rely on waste collection in small pits—this has led to hiring of manual scavengers for cleaning. Toilets build under SBM should be built on the twin pit model, where one pit is in use and the other is composting the collected human waste. Indeed, the government employs people for this routinely, the most prominent example of this being the Railways. While the Supreme Court has, on several occasions, directed the Centre and state governments to take steps towards the monitoring and implementation of the ban on manual scavenging, this hasn’t been effective. Sensitisation, counselling and awareness campaigns can help, but what is really needed is the providing of suitable alternative jobs for manual scavengers, especially women.