Manual Scavenging

Manual scavenging, in India, is a practice as unhygienic as it is disgusting and indignifying. It has also, for long, been a tool of caste oppression- certain castes like the Valmikis have been practising it historically.

Why manual scavenging is a deplorable practice is apparent in its very definition: the unsafe and manual removal of fresh and untreated excreta from dry toilets and pit latrines.

The International Labour Organisation recognises three types of manual scavenging in India:

  1. Removal of human excrement from dry latrines and streets
  2. Cleaning septic tanks
  3. Cleaning gutters and sewers

Manual removal of excrement dropped from train on railway tracks is another form of manual scavenging.

In 1993 and 2013, the Indian government passed laws banning manual scavenging, by banning the employment of people as manual scavengers. It even had provisions to rehabilitate former scavengers.

But the reality is less than ideal. The norms continue to be flouted. This degrading, insanitary practice continues, unabated.

According a Census in 2011, there are nearly 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. Out of these, 13,14,652 toilets are where human excreta is flushed in open drains, and 7,94,390 dry latrines where human excreta is cleaned manually. 73 percent of such toilets are in rural areas and 27 percent are in urban areas.

To make matters worse, states do not report the number of manual scavengers being used in dry toilets across states. Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson says there are 1.6 lakh safai karmcharis cleaning dry toilets in India. This, despite the government’s claims that flush toilets have been built under Swacch Bharat Mission.

In July 2016, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) required the Secretary and DG-level officials from all states and union territories to share data on the total number of dry latrines and manual scavengers. The data received had a major discrepancy in the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers.

State Dry Latrines Manual Scavengers
Telangana 157321 0
Himachal Pradesh 854 0
Chattisgarh 4391 3
Karnataka 24468 302
Madhya Pradesh 39368 36

This mismatch is a serious discrepancy, and points to the failure of State governments to identify manual scavengers and address their problems.

As per the latest Socio-Economic Caste Census Data, 2015, 180657 households in India still make a living from manual scavenging. The NCSC notes that expenditure on rehabilitating manual scavengers under the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was negligible- out of 470.19 crore allotted for 2015-16, the actual expenditure was nil.

Manual scavenging is an issue as socio-economic as it is about hygiene.

The caste system that both forces people into manual scavenging and ostracises them for it needs to go. In a rapidly modernising India, such regressive, archaic attitudes will only hinder development of India and hamper it from becoming the superpower it aims to become.

On that note, the attitude of government officials need to change as well. And it’s not just the apathy towards manual scavengers, but faking figures to make it look like the district/village has new toilets and no safai karmcharis, to reach the goal for Swacch Bharat Mission, is wrong. A better approach to reaching the goals set by Swachh Bharat Mission would be to acknowledge the problem first, and then work with people, resources and proper expertise to resolve the issue and ensure a cleaner India.

Cleaner India because people deserve a good standard of living- part of which is a basic necessity like flush toilets and clean washrooms. Only when people are healthy, they can contribute to national development.

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