Manual Scavenging – Biggest Evil of Modern India

Reading Time: 4 minutes

An occupation which is described to be akin slavery – Manual scavenging is a social evil which has prevailed to be one of the biggest social issues our country faces today. The occupation which involves the removal of excreta manually from toilet traces its origin from the advent of British Colonialism in Undivided India. At that time, there wasn’t any modern flush system and thus containers were used in toilets which had to be manually cleaned. But now, in spite of having modern toilets with a proper flush system and a drainage system, the practice continues to exist. As per 2011 census, around 1% of India’s population which comes up to 1.2 million people in India are involved in the scavenging practice. Manual scavenging is the most degradable occupation any man can hold in today’s world. It is not only an attack on the dignity of an individual but it is extremely hazardous for the person who is performing that task.

Steps have been taken by governments time and again to curb and terminate it. Schemes and legislative initiatives have been taken from time to time. Recently the Central government chalked out a strategy which brings a longstanding hope of bringing an end to this practice forever. But before knowing about the recent amendments lets understand the problems associated with it in depth.

1. Reflecting Caste Based Discrimination in India

 Manual Scavenging is basically a mirror to the deep rooted problem of caste based discrimination in India. Various studies and surveys have pointed out that the people who are involved with scavenging belong to the lower caste. The ancient Indian society was divided into different strata and people were clubbed into different groups on the basis of the occupation they held. The class which included people performing menial jobs like cleaning and maintaining sanitation was known as Shudra. Historians have pointed out that earlier, the system existed was extremely flexible and it was just to maintain a order in the society. Anyone belonging to a particular class could easily move between the classes just by performing a different occupation. Nonetheless, the system got transformed into a thing on the basis of which the social identity of a person is determined.  

As pointed out earlier, the people of the lower caste perform the task of manual scavenging. Moreover, in many cases, their performance of this task is forceful and not voluntary. Reports by the Human Rights Watch and a field study conducted by Rajeev Kumar Singh which was published by the Economic and Political Weekly suggest that the people of the lower caste are threatened to perform manual scavenging. The persecution they face is only because of the caste they belong to. Reports suggest that in spite of having proper educational qualification, people of the lower caste are not given the job they deserve. Many a times, people who gave up this humiliating activity are forced to be back to it and do it to earn some money. Thus manual scavenging is a proof of deeply rooted rigorous caste based discrimination in India.

2. A Gas Chamber

Performing the job of a manual scavenger is like working in a gas chamber. They put their life at risk every time they get ready to do the act. Their working conditions are extremely sad and pathetic. They get exposed to harmful, dangerous gases like methane, hydrogen disulfide, ammonia and carbon monoxide. Hydrogen sulfide is a lethal gas which can cause irritation in the eyes and the respiratory tract even at low concentration levels. These workers work under conditions in which they are exposed to this gas in large quantities. Inhalation of massive quantities of hydrogen sulfide can lead to death by asphyxia – a condition in which a person loses his life because of suffocation and lack of oxygen. There are high chances that the workers might develop other diseases like hepatitis, cardiovascular degeneration, etc. The workers are not provided the adequate protection kit required to perform this job and no wonder many have lost while performing it. From 2015-2019, 376 people lost their while cleaning toilets and sewers which comes up to 6 deaths every month from the past 5 years because of this humiliating occupation. Thus it won’t be wrong to say that working in a manhole, cleaning human excreta is like working in a gas chamber.

3. Government’s initiative and its commitment of bringing an end to it

Its not the case that the government has failed to recognise this social evil. Laws and programmes do exist which try to ensure that the activity is terminated. Laws like Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (prohibition) Act, 1993, Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 do exist. These laws ensure that legally, manual scavenging as a form of employment is completely prohibited. Even the highest court of the land – The Supreme Court in its order in March 2014, has made it mandatory for the government to provide compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to every family who has experienced death due to manual scavenging.

Modi Government’s main priority since 2014 has been the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and recently, the government has announced a list of steps to terminate manual scavenging.

One of the major steps announced is the incentive driven program. The main reason why manual scavenging as a profession still exists is because lack of initiatives taken at the grassroots levels i.e. the Municipality. The government has announced a challenge which involves prize money totaling Rs. 52 crore and it would be given to those urban bodies who give in their best to eradicate this social evil. Next is to bring in amendments in the 2013 Act which will encourage mechanized cleaning. Instead of providing funds to the urban bodies to buy machines which have a history of being extremely inefficient and corrupt, the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry has decided that direct funds would be provided to the workers. Apart from these main measures, other subsidiary measures include replacing the word ‘man-hole’ with ‘machine-hole’ in official use and setting up a 24×7 helpline number to report violations.

The steps which the government has announced seem very promising as it deals with the implementation factor of the law. It concerns the local urban body and tries to hold them accountable for the continuation of manual scavenging as a form of occupation. Manual Scavenging is the worst form of employment anyone can have and definitely it needs to be thrown out from our society. The steps announced to bring in a ray of hope. All we can hope is that the government remains committed towards it and the initiatives taken do bring in the desired results.

4. References/Further Read

A Report by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan on Manual Scavengers and Their Health

Leave a Reply