Manual scavenging: A PAN India problem
New Delhi, Sep 19: Manual scavenging, a terrible and shameful practice has existed in the country for generations.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared the eradication of manual scavenging by 2019, the ground reality is starkly contrasting and fulfillment of the Prime Minister's promise looks difficult.
Terming the act as "inhumane", the Supreme Court on Wednesday came down heavily on the central government for failing to provide masks, oxygen cylinders and other protective gears to such workers.
"Why are you not providing masks and oxygen cylinders? In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. Four to five people are dying due to this every month," said the three-judge bench.
"Unaccountability was abolished...but this is a question to everyone. Do you even shake hands with manual scavengers? The answer is no. That is the way we are going on. We have moved 70 years since Independence but these things are still happening. This is most inhuman to treat human beings like this," the three-Judge Bench said.
What is manual scavenging
Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers.
It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets. The practice of manual scavenging is linked to India's caste system where so-called lower castes were expected to perform this job. Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.
However, while manual scavenging for many may have ended as a form of employment, the stigma and discrimination associated with it lingers on, making it difficult for former or liberated manual scavengers to secure alternate livelihoods and raising the fear that people could once again return to manual scavenging in the absence of other opportunities to support their families. Correctly identifying manual scavengers remains a key challenge.
Manual scavenging: A PAN India problem
Even after 70 years of Independence, manual scavenging still persists in India. According to the India Census 2011, there are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. There are 13,14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains, 7,94,390 dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually. Seventy three percent of these are in rural areas and 27 percent are in urban areas.
According to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for more than 72 percent of the insanitary latrines in India.
As per an RTI response received from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in March 2019, 12 state governments and Delhi NCR reported 405 sewer and septic tank deaths from 1993 to 2019. However, Safai Karmchari Andolan, a manual scavenging community led by advocacy organisation, reported at least 300 deaths from early 2017 to September 2018.
Earlier, a national survey conducted under the Niti Aayog had identified at least 54,130 manual scavengers from 170 districts of 18 states in the country.
In 2013, the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act came into force. However, according to Bezwada Wilson, this law leaves people "helpless".
"The Act does not address critical aspects of provisions like the rehabilitation of those who were liberated from manual scavenging before passing the law in 2013. Liberated manual scavengers regularly face brutal atrocity and violence. Therefore, ensuring protection for these families is crucial," Wilson had observed.
"In the earlier Act, the district magistrate had the power to solve all the cases, but that's not the case with the current one. If the assigned public official isn't doing his duty of identifying manual scavengers and processing their rehabilitation, there is no mechanism to pull them up," media had quoted him saying.
Adopting technology to end manual scavenging
State governments have ropied in robots to clean sewers in the city. It takes 15 minutes to clean small sewers and around 45 minutes to unclog bigger ones. It can travel up to a depth of 20 meters.
Municipal bodies in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have already commissioned Bandicoot. They have also trained manual scavengers to operate the bots from a safe distance.
Officials said the 80 kg, 1.5-metre tall robot costs around Rs. 4 lakh. According to data presented in Parliament by the Union Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, 88 workers have died while cleaning sewers and drains across the country in the last three years.
Technology alone can't end manual scavenging
While the implementation of technology will eliminate the need of manual work, the affected workers need to be rehabilitated with proper skill development and employment opportunities. Focus on behavioural change, legislative reforms, and public, private partnership and most importantly, social responsiblity is the only way out.