Rahul is a 19 years old boy, born and brought up in the Mayanagri of Mumbai. Both his parents are doctors and were able to provide him a life full of comfort and luxury. Rahul is currently doing his graduation from one of the top universities in India. One day, his sociology professor gave a lecture on how untouchability is still being practiced against certain communities. For Rahul, this lecture brought back a distant childhood memory. During one of summer vacations, when he visited his grandparents, he remembered his grandma telling him not to talk to or go near a person working outside, because he was apparently what is called as “Bhangi”. Apart from this one incident, he remembers to have read about it in very brief in an unimportant corner of his school textbook. However, as a child he failed to realise the seriousness of this problem.
More recently, Rahul attended a webinar wherein the keynote speaker, Bezwada Wilson observed how governments have enough resources and modern equipment to launch satellites after satellites and to land on moon but not to provide modernized machines to sewer workers so that they are not forced to enter into manholes; manholes which asphyxiate them to death. People from communities that traditionally worked as “manual scavengers,” still collect human waste on a daily basis, load it into cane baskets or metal troughs, and carry it away on their heads for disposal at the outskirts of the settlement.This observation in particular caught Rahul’s attention. To understand the issue better, Rahul chose to conduct a survey on Manual Scavenging and Untouchability for his sociology term project. In pursuance of the same, Rahul visited a place called “Nala Road”, which was even named so because an open sewer canal runs parallel along with the road.
On his visit, while on one hand, Rahul found it difficult to breath properly even from distance due to the awful smell, he witnessed the deplorable sight of sewer workers dipped deep inside the canal up to their knees handling slurry with their bare hands. Rahul gathered his courage and stepped in direction where a man named Sunil, who appeared to be in his mid twenties, was standing. Rahul explained him the reason for his visit and requested him to answer some of his questions. Rahul not only sensed Sunil’s bewilderment (probably because he was not accustomed of people coming and empathizing with him and his work), but also his hesitancy in answering questions (probably because Sunil himself felt ashamed talking about the nature of the work he does). An excerpt from the conversation is provided below:
Rahul: What all kind of work you do as a part of this?
Sunil: Well, anything that involves interaction with excreta. For instance, the manual cleaning of dry latrines, sewers, manholes and septic tanks, removal of debris from sewage canals etc.
Rahul: Can you throw some light on hazards associated with this work?
Sunil: There are many as a matter of fact. For instance, exposure to poisonous gases and asphyxiation while working in manholes and septic tanks etc. My own father died working in the manhole!
Rahul: When this work is so hazardous and unsafe, why do you and others here continue it?
Sunil: Do you think we have chosen this life for ourselves!!? We do what we do because we have no other option. Most of us do not get to go to schools due to abject poverty that we live in. Those who somehow manage to get enrolled either are left behind in race or are otherwise deliberately denied work because of our castes. We have been doing this work since generations and there seems to be no way out. People think we are born to do this and are worthy of only this. I have some of relatives who live in villages, they are made to do this compulsorily by the Panchayat itself.
This encounter made Rahul realise why and how people continue to undertake a work which is unsanitary, undignified and above all, legally banned by Parliament since 1993. Most of the workers who are working as a manual scavenger like Sunil are unaware about various constitutional as wells as the statutory provisions which are meant to safeguard the rights and interests of these workers. Some of these provisions have been enlisted below:
- Section 3 of The Employment of Manual scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 completely prohibits the employment and engagement of any person for manually carrying human excreta or construct or maintain a dry latrine.
- Section 5 of Prohibition of Insanitary Latrines and Employment and Engagement as Manual Scavenger Act, 2013 (hereinafter referred to as the “Act”) prohibits the construction of an insanitary latrine and also prohibits the employment and engagement of manual scavengers.
An “insanitary latrine” means a latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually.
- Section 7 of the Act: “No person, local authority or any agency shall engage or employ any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.
- Anyone who contravenes section 7 of the act for the first time is to be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both and any subsequent contravention shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees, or with both.
- The Act provides for the rehabilitation of any person included in the final list of manual scavengers published in pursuance of the provisions of the act in the following manner:
- He shall be given, within one month, a photo identity card, containing, inter alia, details of all members of his family dependent on him, and such initial, one time, cash assistance, as may be prescribed.
- As per the provisions of the relevant scheme of the Central Government or the State Government or the concerned local authority and subject to eligibility and willingness of the manual scavenger:
- His children shall be entitled to scholarship.
- He shall be allotted a residential plot and financial assistance for house construction, or a ready-built house with financial assistance.
- He, or at least one adult member of his family, shall be given training in a livelihood skill, and shall be paid a monthly stipend of not less than three thousand rupees, during the period of such training.
- Subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation on a sustainable basis shall be provided to him or at least one adult member of his family.
- He shall also be provided any other legal and programmatic assistance as per the requirements.
- The hon’ble Supreme Court of India in Safai Karmachari Andolan v Union Of India(2014) has ruled to identify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs.10 lakhs for each such death to the family members depending on them.
- Article 17 of the Constitution of India abolishes “untouchability” and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “untouchability” is an offence punishable in accordance with law.
- Article 21 of the Constitution of India enshrines that no person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law. Various rulings of Supreme Court have interpreted right to life to include right to live with dignity.
In the course of completion of his project, Rahul found some startling data which made him question all the apparent progress that we claim to have made.
- According to a national survey conducted in 18 states, atotal of 48,345 manual scavengers have been identified till January 31, 2020.
- 814 deaths of manual scavengers engaged in cleaning sewers and septic tanks have been recorded in India from 1993 to July, 2019 in 20 states and UTs.
- While replying to a question raised in the Lok Sabha, Ramdas Athawale, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment revealed that between 2015 and 2019, 376 people died of asphyxia while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
- Out of 376 deaths from 2015 to 2019, families of only 200 sanitation workers who died between 2015 and 2019 were paid full compensation, 75 received partial amount and 101 have not received any compensation at all.
Talking to Sunil, made Rahul realize that the issues of poverty, indignity and caste are not only interconnected but also reinforce each other. It is clear that government policies have not been properly implemented. People remain unaware of their right to refuse their roles as manual scavengers, and those who do refuse face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the complicity of local government officials. The manual carrying of human faeces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination and violation of human rights. What is required not only ending the practice but also ending the abuses faced by communities engaged in manual scavenging.
– Namrata Jeph and Jayam Jha