A continuing social outrage

Published : Oct 04, 1997 00:00 IST

Although outlawed, the practice of manual scavenging of human waste continues. And as a struggle in Gujarat shows, changes in the status of sanitary workers call for changes in social attitudes.


NEARLY a century after Mahatma Gandhi first called for the abolition of manual scavenging, the degrading practice continues - in Gandhi's Gujarat and in many other States.

In the 50 years since Independence, several committees have called for the abolition of the practice of disposing of human faecal waste by having it carried away in headloads by safai karamcharis (cleaning workers). In 1993, the Centre outlawed the practice and the construction of dry latrines and drew up a scheme for the rehabilitation of nightsoil gatherers or manual scavengers, as they are still referred to in official proceedings. Yet there are even today an estimated 8 lakh safai karamcharis, or bhangis (as some government records refer to them), who work and live in conditions that are, apart from being extremely degrading, a serious risk to their health.

The working conditions of the sanitary workers have remained virtually unchanged for over a century. Using only a stick broom and a small tin plate, the sanitary workers clear faeces from public and private latrines onto baskets or other containers, which they then carry on their heads to dumping grounds and disposal sites. A few, however, are provided wheel-barrows or carts by municipal authorities.

safai karamchari

The community of manual sanitary workers, who are members of a Scheduled Caste, are consigned to the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy and are victims of the system of untouchability. Their settlements are usually situated on the outskirts of villages, and they are not allowed inside the homes that they clean. Although they are not always the poorest in a village in terms of incomes, they are the victims of a caste system that has for centuries assigned them a task no one else will do.

PUBLIC and private latrines were built from about the early 19th century when the first municipalities were set up during British rule. Most dry latrines are rudimentary and unhygienic in the extreme. The dry latrines are no more than a small room in which a hole in the ground opens onto a receptacle in a compartment below. The sanitary worker has to crawl into the compartment and empty out the receptacle. In pit latrines, faeces collects in a jute bag, which is removed manually. Europeans used commodes or chamberpots that were emptied out by sanitary workers. In villages, there are Wardha latrines - small, walled-in areas on the open ground; most common, of course, is the absence of latrines altogether. For sanitary workers, the most revolting to clean are open gutter latrines. The filth drips onto the women who clean the toilets and carry away the waste.

Leelaben, a safai karamchari of Paliyad village, Dhandhuka tehsil, in Gujarat, said: "In the rainy season, water mixes with the faeces that we carry in baskets on our heads, it drips onto our clothes, our faces... When I return home, I find it difficult to eat food. The smell never leaves my clothes, my hair. But in summer there is often no water to wash your hands before eating. It is difficult to say which is worse."

If the practice of manual scavenging continues to this day, it is largely because of the lack of political will to abolish it - barring some attempts by Mahatma Gandhi and social reformers to address the issue. Gandhi decreed, when he established the Sabarmati ashram in 1917, that ashram members should clean the toilets themselves. When freedom fighter Appasaheb Patwardhan was imprisoned in Ratnagiri jail in 1933, he asked to be allowed to work as a scavenger. Jail authorities were appalled that a Brahmin was asking to do a bhangi's work. Throughout his prison term, Appasaheb cleaned toilets; after his release, he set about designing the first "Gopuri" (compost) latrine.

In 1948, the Maharashtra Harijan Sevak Sangh called for measures to do away with the practice of carrying nightsoil in headloads, which it called a "blot on humanity". The Barve Committee was set up the next year to recommend ways to improve the working conditions of sanitary workers. Its report, which mirrors the Committee members' outrage at the continuance of the practice, is still to be acted upon. In 1957, the Scavenging Conditions Enquiry Committee recommended the abolition of the practice of carrying human faeces in headloads. In 1968, the National Commission on Labour set up a committee to study the working conditions of "sweepers and scavengers".

All these Committees recommended the abolition of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of the sanitary workers. Over the decades, crores of rupees have been allocated to implement rehabilitation schemes. But even as recently as 1991, the Planning Commission conceded that manual scavenging had not been abolished. It established a National Commission for Safai Karamcharis to suggest measures to abolish scavenging by the end of the Eighth Plan (1995) and rehabilitate sanitary workers. The Centre allocated Rs.110 crores a year for the rehabilitation scheme.

In 1993, the Centre brought forward legislation to abolish the practice. Under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, officials responsible for the perpetuation of the practice face one year's imprisonment and/or a fine of Rs.2,000. In addition, they are liable for prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Yet manual scavenging continues in virtually every State; a notable exception is Kerala.

NAVSARJAN TRUST, an Ahmedabad-based non-governmental organisation working among Dalits, has documentary proof of the continuance of manual scavenging and is campaigning for its abolition. On behalf of 35 safai karamcharis in Ranpur town in Dhandhuka taluk, it initiated legal action in 1995 for the prosecution of government officials on the charge of negligence for the continuance of the practice. The Ranpur case has become something of a landmark in the campaign for the abolition of manual scavenging.

In court, counsel for the Government claimed that "mathe melu" (the practice of carrying human faecal matter in headloads) was no longer being practised in Gujarat; confronted with Navsarjan's photographic and video evidence that showed women safai karamcharis bearing headloads of human waste, he alleged that the women had been paid to pose for the pictures. Navsarjan founder-director Martin Macwan secured the judge's permission to reply and - dramatically - offered to give Rs.1 lakh to anyone in the court who would pose for a photograph with a basket of human excrement on his head. There was complete silence in the court. Macwan's point was made.

The High Court appointed a commission of inquiry into the case of the Ranpur sanitary workers. Meanwhile, the services of the safai karamcharis who had filed a complaint were terminated on the ground that they were on an "illegal strike". Navsarjan filed another case on their behalf and asked for the panchayat records (including wage registers), which could prove whether or not manual scavenging was in practice, to be produced in court. Cornered, panchayat officials offered to reinstate the workers, but insisted that they clean toilets. The offer was rejected: the workers said they would never handle human excrement again.

In desperation, the panchayat sealed the dry latrines, but villagers broke the seal and used the latrines. The Ranpur Sarpanch, who was repeatedly summoned in court, tried to instigate the villagers against the sanitary workers. "These people," he said, "want wages but won't work. They refuse to clean the latrines and the entire village is suffering."

Navsarjan countered this with a campaign to sensitise the villagers to the plight of the sanitary workers. The poor of the village responded by expressing solidarity with the sanitary workers and even testified in court that the panchayat had treated the safai karamcharis unfairly. The verdict is yet to be delivered, but the court ruled that it was the panchayat's responsibility to demolish all dry latrines in Ranpur village and build water-seal latrines. Panchayat officials said the panchayat could not build water-seal latrines as it was strapped for funds. That, the court said, was the panchayat's problem.

The legal battle is far from over, but Navsarjan's campaign to force the Government to respond with more than just promises continues. In November 1996, women sanitary workers of Ranpur were brought to Ahmedabad for a public hearing that was attended by prominent citizens, social workers, educationists and representatives of non-governmental organisations and the press. The women narrated their experiences and answered questions. Many in the audience were moved to tears. On February 25, 1997, the Shankarsinh Vaghela Government announced it would provide Rs.30 crores for the rehabilitation of sanitary workers.

For Macwan, however, these achievements do not constitute victory; he wants to see manual scavenging totally abolished and the sanitary workers provided alternative employment. What devastated him, he said, was that the sanitary workers themselves, trapped in the psychology of the oppressed, were not protesting against the practice. "They were merely begging the panchayat to give them more brooms and improve their working conditions," he said. "And even when it comes to rehabilitation, they can only think of making brooms or selling drums. Those who dream of anything else are put in their place by the authorities."

"I was trying to get a group of women sanitary workers to choose alternative jobs," said Macwan. "They could not. Finally, one woman mustered up courage and said, 'I'll sell blouse pieces.' I told her: 'You have to struggle, but it's worth doing anything just to break this attitude of mind. Break the system.'"

ABOLISHING manual scavenging and ensuring alternative employment for sanitary workers is not just a matter of allocating funds for rehabilitation schemes. Radically different sanitation systems that take into account the need for public hygiene must be introduced. Various complex social and other factors have to be addressed sensitively and creatively. The task is not an easy one, but the battle is not over until every manual sanitary worker is liberated.

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