Making people from certain sections of society to clean human waste is an age-old practice in India. Tragically, these people who render this vital service for others are relegated to the lowest rung of caste hierarchy. They are called Sudras. For centuries these cursed human beings have endured the worst form of abuse in the hands of the higher castes, particularly, the Brahmins. The Sudras are untouchables, they can’t enter temples, and they have to live in separate clusters, away from the main community. Worst of all, their children can’t go to school, and they can’t inter-marry. The list of ignominy the Sudras have to live with is long. This practice of assigning the ‘dirty’ work to certain sections of the society and then treating them so scornfully has been a blot in our culture. Many sages and saints preached to treat the Sudras equally, but the entrenched abuse has continued till today. Even Gandhiji’s crusade against this oppressive system failed to make a dent on this scourge that continues to shame us internationally.
The prevalence of badly-designed and ill-kept latrines in almost all part of India is the root cause of this malaise. The number of such latrines is officially put at 2.6 lakh for the whole country, but the actual number might be much higher.
The manual scavengers do two types of work. Those who remove the excreta from the latrines have to face the worst health hazard, and bear the stench and sight of the most unpleasant filth. Sadly, they have no access to any protective gloves or masks. The oppressive caste system’s shackles are too strong for the scavengers class to defy the diktats of the higher classes. The system, thus, perpetuates.
The second group of manual scavengers is called upon to clean septic tanks, sewers, and sewage systems. These workers face deadly life risk when they go into the tanks. With no protection mask, they inhale the lethal gases, and die in minutes. Despite such obvious risks, these workers undertake the cleaning job, and are paid paltry amounts.
Silently enduring the discrimination, paltry wages, and deadly health hazards, the manual scavengers have served us for centuries. Now, in independent India, legislations were first enacted in 1993 to outlaw this shameful practice. Another legislation enacted in 2013 strengthened the ban on manual scavenging. Regretfully, the practice continues.
The people have not upgraded their old-fashioned latrines necessitating manual removal of night soil. This is highly disturbing. For septic tanks and large sewage systems, truck-mounted mobile machines are available, but the civic authorities choose not to use them. Every year, scores of manual scavengers succumb to lethal gas inhalation.
The latest government survey shows that the number of manual scavengers is 57000. But the data is for just 121 districts out of a total of India’s 600 districts. So, the actual number of manual scavengers can run to a few lakh. Sadly, the states have either under-reported the number or thwarted attempts by agencies to collect data. Such attitude adds to the complexity of the problem.
Some states have done well to stop this practice by forcing people to modernize their latrines, and rehabilitating the scavengers who volunteered to adopt other professions. The states like UP, Bihar and Jharkhand have done very little progress to eradicate manual scavenging.
The next anniversary of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is round the corner. This is an opportunity to reflect on our efforts to banish this shameful practice, and find ways to give a fresh momentum to the campaign. The filth and dirt apart, forcing people to manually clean latrines is an attack on their right to dignity. The Constitution does not allow any curtailing of the fundamental right of a citizen to a healthy life. So, the cause of eradication of manual scavenging should climb up in our nation’s development agenda.