Even after 70 years of independence and 25 years after it has been declared illegal, it is very depressing and unfortunate to see manual scavenging still being practised in India. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 had summed up more than 1.82 Lakh families, in which at least 1 member was employed in this dehumanizing practice. But, several NGOs working in eradicating this social evil have pegged the numbers of manual scavengers at over 5 Lakhs.
Introduction and Brief History
Manual scavenging involves various processes, for example, manually cleaning, moving or disposing of the human excreta from dry/unsanitary latrines and sewers. Under § 2(g) of the M.S Act 2013, “Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed by an individual or any local authority, agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling in any form, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or an open drain or pit or on railway tracks or at any other place, as the Central Government or a State Government has notified, the expression “manual scavenging” is to be construed accordingly.
Manual scavenging goes back to the days of the pre-Mauryan India and maybe even far. Many ancient texts provide insight into the existence of a system for the disposal of night-soil. In the contents of ancient scriptures and other literature, scavenging, the disposal of night-soil by a particular caste or castes of Indian society, has been in existence since the beginning of civilization. One of the 15 duties for slaves enumerated the Naradiya Samhita, was to dispose of human excreta.
There are various types of manual scavengers, those cleaning dry latrines, septic tanks, railway tracks, sewers, sewage treatment plants, etc. The magnitude of the work conditions, gender and wages also differ. For example, in cleaning dry latrines or community dry latrines (CDLs) in villages and small towns, almost 90% of scavengers are women. This majorly involves the usage of the most basic of tools like buckets, brooms and baskets. On the other hand, cleaning sewers involves entering the manholes and cleaning the “shit” with bare hands, which is done by men. Since time immemorial, the practise of manual scavenging has been associated with India’s caste system, where the castes in the lowermost strata or the “untouchables” were expected to perform this job. This dehumanising practise is prevalent across the country and is done by people who fall lowest in the caste hierarchy. Not only is this practise humiliating but also a major cause of discrimination. The manual scavengers face extreme levels of hazards, social ostracism and poor wages. For example, the women cleaning the dry latrines, where the highest number of manual scavengers are involved, earn not more than Rs.50 for working in one middle-income household in villages. Many times, they are only given food to eat or grains.
The life expectancy of an average scavenger is not more than 50-55 years. They suffer from diseases like respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, meningitis, cholera, typhoid, etc. Approximately, 600 manual scavengers die every year from these diseases and majorly from inhaling poisonous gases in sewers.
It is a fact of great humiliation for every Indian that we have been able to send machines and satellites to outer space but couldn’t send machines to manholes and sewer lines instead of humans.
After independence, the first-ever enquiry committee to study the living conditions of the manual scavenging community was formed in 1949. In the late 1950s, G. S. Lakshman Iyer, a freedom fighter, who became the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality banned manual scavenging becoming the first local body to ban it officially. In 1956, the Ministry of Home Affairs formed a committee under the Central Advisory Board for Harijan Welfare which was chaired by Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. The committee inter alia reviewed the working and living conditions of sweepers and scavengers and recommended the introduction of schemes for this purpose. The Committee became functional in January 1958 and submitted its report in December 1960.
The report contained concrete recommendations for eliminating the practice of carrying night-soil as head loads and also for removing filth and humiliation from all stages of scavenging and for refining their working, living and social status. The Committee observed that “as long as dry latrines continue; the problem will exist and it is a story of the far distant future to think of all the towns having underground sewers”. Between the 1960s and 1990s, there were many committees formed and several reports submitted. There were several deadlines given by the government based on reports and recommendations of various commissions and committees to rehabilitate the community and to provide better working conditions. But many times, the amounts sanctioned by state governments were not utilised or were negligible.
Role of Judiciary
Liberal interpretation of Art. 21 of the Constitution has opened new doors for social welfare jurisprudence and new rights have come under the ambit of Art. 21. The courts have also adopted a stern approach towards the plight of manual scavengers. This has also given an opportunity to prominent activists to raise their voice against the pathetic condition of scavengers. The Safai Karamchari Andolan, led by Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Bezwada Wilson, in 2003 filed a petition in the Supreme Court that became a landmark case and gained attention of the media and society, who had neglected this inhuman act for 70 years.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) asked the Supreme Court for: (a) proper implementation of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, (b) declare that manual scavenging was violative of right to life and equality; and (c) declare it as a form of bonded labour and untouchability. SKA successfully convinced the Court to treat the petition as a “continuing mandamus” for 11 years.
The Supreme Court gave a detailed judgement in 2014. It also referred to several international covenants and instruments, to which India is a signatory, that seeks to guarantee a dignified human life in respect of his profession and other walks of life. The SC issued various directions focusing on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. It directed the Railways to end the practice with a time-bound strategy and the government to identify and provide Rs.10 Lakhs as compensation to families of scavengers who die while cleaning sewers, manholes, etc.
In 2011, the Supreme Court highlighted the apathy and plight of the scavengers and sewage workers in the Delhi Jal Board case. The Supreme Court criticised the government and the state apparatus on being insensitive to the safety and wellbeing of those who are, on account of sheer poverty, compelled to work under most unfavourable conditions and regularly face the threat of being deprived of their life. The Supreme Court not only directed to pay higher compensation to the families of the deceased, but also directed the civic bodies to ensure immediate compliance of the directions and orders passed by the Delhi High Court for ensuring safety and security of the sewage workers.
Last year, the Supreme Court, while hearing a review petition on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, criticised the government for not providing the manual scavengers with protective gears. The Supreme Court also remarked that no country sends its people into “gas chambers” and that every month four to five people are losing lives due to this.
Even though the legislation has been enacted, economic assistance has been provided and rehabilitation programs have been started; there hasn’t been any considerable decline in this practice. The government and its departments have time and again turned a blind eye to the issue of manual scavengers being employed by government bodies. There are pieces of evidence that several municipal corporations are employing manual scavengers through private contractors. There appears to be a complete lack of implementation of the laws and sensitisation.
Rehabilitation and awareness should be the primary agenda of the government to eradicate manual scavenging. The government should amend the M.S Act, 2013, and rehabilitation programs should be linked to the social security laws such as Unorganized Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and employment generation programs like MGNREGA. The Swachh Bharat Mission majorly focused on eliminating open defecation and so the majority of the toilets constructed under the campaign were twin pits or septic systems. The government should work on converting these into water sealed latrines. The municipal and panchayat laws should make it compulsory for the construction of new homes with water sealed latrines.
The Make in India initiative has helped various start-up companies like SewerCros and Genrobotics to work towards making indigenous sewer cleaning robots and machines. The CSR funding from various PSUs and private companies also acts as a motivation for these young entrepreneurs. These machines should be produced in large scale. The various ministries of social justice, sanitation, housing, railways, rural and urban development have key roles to play in the eradication of the practice of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of freed families and should cooperate.
Manual scavenging is an issue of serious concern as it blatantly violates basic human rights. The person is devoid of his rights and in the age of advancement and technology we need to get rid of this dehumanising practice.
 Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on Abolition of Scavenging in India 37-38 (New Ed., Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2000)