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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 The outdated toilet systems in our trains drop all the human excreta on to the tracks which are later cleaned by the scavengers employed by the Railways.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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