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Modern India’s Form of Untouchability: Manual Scavenging

Manual Scavenging is one of the social evils that continues unabated in India. Targeted at the community labelled as ‘low-borns’ – the Dalits suffer the most from this practice. A clear distinction is noticed in the formation of laws declaring manual scavenging as illegal and their implementation. ‘Untouchability’, a tradition considered to have perished, continues to pose a threat for social exclusion of the manual scavengers. The archaic caste system prevails despite the rapid progress of modern India.

The process of manually cleaning, dumping, or removing human excreta from dry lavatories, manholes, and sewers is known as manual scavenging. It usually entails the use of basic items like buckets and brooms. The hazardous activity of entering and clearing manholes requires professional safety equipment and extreme caution. But, in India, the workers merely wear a helmet and a jute rope in the name of a harness. These areas are toxic, with deadly fumes of methane, nitrogen, ammonia, and hydrogen sulphide building up over time, generated by a dangerous cocktail of human and industrial wastes. These workers wear canister masks, the cover of which states – “if used in an environment with low oxygen levels, you are in danger of suffocation.” The reduced oxygen levels in the sewage lines or the manholes cause hypoxia, which often leads to immediate death.

Credits: Sabrang India

This laborious task is done by an ostracised community considered the lowest in society – the Dalits. These workers are still regarded as ‘untouchables’ on the basis of their vocation. There is clear-cut physical segregation as the houses of these individuals stand apart from the other sections of society. This fear of exclusion compels these workers to not disclose their jobs, even to their family members. The stigma of caste discrimination continues to remain the black spot in the development of our nation.

Sunil, a Ph.D. student in the light of the day, switches to his profession as a sweeper when sundown approaches. He is a Dalit by caste who has attained six degrees–B.Com, B.A. in Journalism, M.A. in Globalisation and Labour, Master of Social Work, Doctor of Social Work, and M.Phil. Despite these high educational qualifications, he continues to clean the streets of Mumbai, The City of Dreams. Belonging to a family of manual scavengers, Sunil recalled his first experience of cleaning the sewers. He said, “My first day at work was like hell. The stink in my hand took three days to fade.” Overwhelmed by the dread and distress of being shut out from society because of his job, Sunil forced himself to pursue higher studies. But his fate brought him back to, as he puts, “where he belongs” – with an unshakeable will to bring about a change for his community members.

One of modern India’s greatest shame is its official failure to eliminate manual scavenging; the most degrading practice of untouchability in the country. The graph continues to rise as the number of deaths due to cleaning manholes and septic tanks increases each year. The National Commission for Safai Karamchari (NCSK) reported that over the past ten years, 631 workers have died while cleaning the sewers and manholes.

472 deaths from 2016 to 2020 and 26 deaths this year till date due to manual scavenging are recorded with details of each incident sent to the central government! Still, it keeps denying even a single death!! Shameful!! #ManualScavenging #stopkillingus” – A tweet by activist Bezwada Wilson from the Safai Karamchari Andolan on July 31, 2021.

Bezwada Wilson also elaborates how the entire concept of manual scavenging is an issue of both casteism and patriarchy. He says that the Dalit categorize themselves in this job on the basis of their gender. The high-paid jobs of cleaning the sewage and septic tanks are dominated by the men, leaving the dry lavatories to the women, where the wages are low.

It is such a filthy job. I just hope somehow, I get rid of this hell. My life is miserable. I hope the government gives me another job.” – Sarasvati, a 57-year-old manual scavenger from the Ghaziabad district.

There are high expectations for the new Act – The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020. It was only in 1993, through The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act that a strict stance was taken against employing manual scavengers and the construction of dry toilets (toilets without a flush system). But the Act had its limitations. Another Act called The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed in 2013, which was wider in scope than the 1993 Act and more importantly, acknowledged the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers. Despite the formation of these laws, the practice of manual scavenging persists. It is due to the loopholes and the big gap in their implementation on ground.

Eradicating this evil requires more than just passing a bill in the parliament. To terminate the practice of manual scavenging, the government must take a bigger step; diminishing the notion of untouchability is the need of the hour.

Ambrisha Zubeen is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Maryam Hassan

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Written by Ambrisha Zubeen

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