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Still not human enough? How the Indian govt is failing its fight against manual scavenging

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By Harshmeet Singh

When they said no job is too small or derogatory to perform, they certainly left out the practice of manual scavenging. Almost exclusively performed by people belonging to the Dalit community, scavenging is the practice of cleaning human excreta from dry latrines (without flush system) manually.

Every day, the manual scavengers are required to reach out to all the dry latrines in their area, use their bare hands to pick up the human excreta, fill it in a broad hand held bane basket, place it on their head and take it to the a nearby bin to dispose it off. If you are searching for an example of lower caste abuse in this ‘modern Indian society’, there can’t be a better example than manual scavenging.

Biggest Offender?

One of the biggest employers of manual scavengers in India is our very own Indian Railways. The outdated toilet systems in our trains drop all the human excreta on to the tracks which are later cleaned by the scavengers employed by the Railways. Railways operate more than 172,000 dry toilets as a part of over 43,000 passenger coaches. Still in denial about violating the law against manual scavenging, Indian Railways has been pulled up by the courts multiple times.

The ‘untouchables’

The practice of manual scavenging is passed on as a ‘hereditary’ profession in a number of Indian villages. The task is mostly performed by females since men do not want to get their hands ‘dirty’. The scavengers are considered as ‘untouchables’ in the village, with people from ‘higher caste’ keeping a safe distance from them. They are usually asked to enter the home from the rear gate, collect the human excreta and leave without touching a thing or speaking a word.

Rachna, who cleans more than 25 dry toilets a day in the Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh says, “Most of them do not pay me anything. They just keep their leftover food outside their home for me to pick up. On some days, even that food gets eaten by the stray dogs. When I ask for money, they threaten me that they will boycott me from the village or restrict my buffaloes from grazing on their land. What can I do? I do not like touching dirty things but I have no option but to go their homes every day.”

A number of villages in different parts of the country have earmarked people from certain castes to carry out the work of manual scavenging. Prabha Devi, from Babatpur area, near Varanasi in UP, cries when she says “I belong to the Musahar community. Cleaning dry latrines is our job. Even if I do not want to do this, I can’t leave it. Whenever any toilet in the village needs cleaning, people call me up to do it. My body stinks badly every day. I am even scared to touch the idols of God with my hands. I don’t remember the last time when I prayed.”

According to the 2011 census, over 750,000 families in India are involved in manual scavenging. Most estimates peg the number of manual scavengers in India at over 1.3 million. This number is close to the entire population of cities such as Nashik, Agra, Faridabad and Meerut.

What does the Law say?

The Supreme Court, in March 2014, called manual scavenging “a practice that violates international human rights law”. The SC further directed the government to come up with a permanent solution and take measures for rehabilitation of the people involved in this menial practice. In 2011, the Delhi High Court directed the Indian Railways to expedite the process of setting up bio-toilets in railway coaches to eliminate manual scavenging. Unsurprisingly, the High Court’s direction fell to deaf ears.

In the Union budget of 2011-12, the Government allotted a sum of Rs 100 crore in order to execute ‘Self Employment Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers’. After much applause, the grant was reduced to Rs 35 crore. The same thing happened in 2012-13 when the budget grant of Rs 98 crore was cut down to Rs 20 crore.

In September 2013, the Parliament passed ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013’. Though all the Government departments were soon issued the notifications regarding the same, it is not difficult to conclude that this legislation had no impact on the condition of manual scavengers in the country.

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Most Terrible Water Crisis Ever In History Leaves Millions Of Indians Thirsty

6 percent of GDP is very much dependent on water.

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A woman washes clothes as her daughter bathes in the Yamuna River on a hot day in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2017.
A woman washes clothes as her daughter bathes in the Yamuna River on a hot day in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2017. VOA

Weak infrastructure and a national shortage have made water costly all over India, but Sushila Devi paid a higher price than most. It took the deaths of her husband and son to force authorities to supply it to the slum she calls home.

“They died because of the water problem, nothing else,” said Devi, 40, as she recalled how a brawl over a water tanker carrying clean drinking water in March killed her two relatives and finally prompted the government to drill a tubewell.

“Now things are better. But earlier … the water used to be rusty, we could not even wash our hands or feet with that kind of water,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Delhi.

India is “suffering from the worst water crisis in its history”, threatening hundreds of millions of lives and jeopardising economic growth, a government think-tank report said in June.

From the northern Himalayas to the sandy, palm-fringed beaches in the south, 600 million people – nearly half India’s population – face acute water shortage, with close to 200,000 dying each year from polluted water.

Residents like Devi queue daily with pipes, jerry cans and buckets in hand for water from tankers – a common lifeline for those without a safe, reliable municipal supply – often involving elbowing, pushing and punching.

On the rare occasions water does flow from taps, it is often dirty, leading to disease, infection, disability and even death, experts say.

“The water was like poison,” said Devi, who still relies on the tanker for drinking water, outside her one-room shanty in the chronically water-stressed Wazirpur area of the capital Delhi.

“It is better now, but still it is not completely drinkable. It is alright for bathing and washing the dishes.”

Water pollution is a major challenge, the report said, with nearly 70 percent of India’s water contaminated, impacting three in four Indians and contributing to 20 percent of the country’s disease burden.

Yet only one-third of its wastewater is currently treated, meaning raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes and ponds – and eventually gets into the groundwater.

“Our surface water is contaminated, our groundwater is contaminated. See, everywhere water is being contaminated because we are not managing our solid waste properly,” said the report’s author Avinash Mishra.
Loss of livelihood

Meanwhile, unchecked extraction by farmers and wealthy residents has caused groundwater levels to plunge to record lows, says the report.

It predicts that 21 major cities, including New Delhi and India’s IT hub of Bengaluru, will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.

The head of WaterAid India VK Madhavan said the country’s groundwater was now heavily contaminated.

“We are grappling with issues, with areas that have arsenic contamination, fluoride contamination, with salinity, with nitrates,” he said, listing chemicals that have been linked to cancer.

Arsenic and fluoride occur naturally in the groundwater, but become more concentrated as the water becomes scarcer, while nitrates come from fertilisers, pesticides and other industrial waste that has seeped into the supply.

The level of chemicals in the water was so high, he said, that bacterial contamination – the source of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid – “is in the second order of problems”.

“Poor quality of water – that is loss of livelihood. You fall ill because you don’t have access to safe drinking water, because your water is contaminated.”

Currently, only 70 percent of India’s states treat less than half of their wastewater.
Currently, only 70 percent of India’s states treat less than half of their wastewater. pixabay

“The burden of not having access to safe drinking water, that burden is greatest on the poor and the price is paid by them.”

Frothy lakes and rivers

Crippling water problems could shave 6 percent off India’s gross domestic product, according to the report by the government think-tank, Niti Aayog.

“This 6 percent of GDP is very much dependent on water. Our industry, our food security, everything will be at stake,” said Mishra.

“It is a finite resource. It is not infinite. One day it can (become) extinct,” he said, warning that by 2030 India’s water supply will be half of the demand.

To tackle this crisis, which is predicted to get worse, the government has urged states – responsible for supplying clean water to residents – to prioritise treating waste water to bridge the supply and demand gap and to save lives.

Currently, only 70 percent of India’s states treat less than half of their wastewater.

Every year, Bengaluru and New Delhi make global headlines as their heavily polluted water bodies emit clouds of white toxic froth due to a mix of industrial effluents and domestic garbage dumped into them.

In Bengaluru – once known as the “city of lakes” and now doomed to go dry – the Bellandur Lake bursts into flames often, sending plumes of black smoke into sky.

The Yamuna river that flows through New Delhi can be seen covered under a thick, detergent-like foam on some days.

On other days, faeces, chemicals and ashes from human cremations float on top, forcing passers-by to cover their mouths and noses against the stench.

That does not stop 10-year-old Gauri, who lives in a nearby slum, from jumping in every day.

With no access to water, it is the only way to cool herself down during India’s scorching summers, when temperatures soar to 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

“There usually is not enough water for us to take a shower, so we come here,” said Gauri, who only gave her first name, as she and her brother splashed around in the filthy river.

Also read: India’s bulging water crisis: Is it too late for us to do something?

“It makes us itchy and sick, but only for some time. We are happy to have this, everyone can use it.” (VOA)