Print edition : February 06, 2014

Manual scavengers from Sulabh International cleaning toilets in Lucknow on December 14, 2014. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

“SHAMEFUL”, “degrading”, “dehumanising”, “disgusting”, “obnoxious”, “abhorrent”, a “blot on humanity”—these are some of the words used to describe “manual scavenging”, which in plain language means people lifting human excreta with their hands and carrying the load on their heads, hips or shoulders. If they are lucky, they get to use a wheelbarrow.

Over the years books have been written, committees and commissions have been set up, laws have been enacted and crores of rupees have been spent to eradicate manual scavenging. But even after six decades of Independence, India continues to dehumanise, degrade and shame the most vulnerable amongst us. Governments in several States have denied in court the existence of manual scavengers, despite evidence to the contrary.

In 2002-03, the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admitted the existence of 6.76 lakh people who lift human excreta for a living and the presence of 92 lakh dry latrines, spread across 21 States and Union Territories. However, when the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), along with individual scavengers and organisations which are working for the cause, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2003, most States hotly denied having scavengers and claimed that most of them had been rehabilitated in alternative professions. It took three years and strong admonishments from the apex court for the States to respond. Most of them submitted affidavits claiming that no dry latrines exist and, therefore, no manual scavenging exists. Since then, several affidavits and counter-affidavits have been filed.

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the SKA, says the problem is not about identifying, educating or providing alternatives. The problem is one of attitude. “No reliable data are available. We have conducted sample surveys with our limited resources and we estimate that there could be as many as 13 lakh manual scavengers in the country,” he says.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993. Says Wilson: “It took another decade for some States to adopt it. Some States refuse to adopt the law, saying that they don't have any manual scavengers, despite evidence to the contrary, while some States adopted the law only after the SKA went to the Supreme Court. How can you solve a problem unless you first admit that a problem exists?”

Capital falsehood

A Frontline investigation found that the state of denial extends to the national capital. The affidavit filed by the Delhi government in the Supreme Court has accused the petitioners of levelling “bad allegations against answering respondent without verifying facts”. On a visit to Nand Nagri near Shahdara in the National Capital Region in order to verify, Frontline met Meena, who is a volunteer with the SKA and has been working as a manual scavenger since she was nine.

Says Meena, who is in her mid-twenties: “I remember the first time I had to carry a basketful on my head. I slipped and fell into the gutter. No one would come to pick me up because the basket was so dirty and I was covered with filth. I sat there, howling, until another woman scavenger arrived. She hosed me down and took me home. But that day I felt like the most unfortunate child in the whole world.”

According to her, there could be anywhere between 100 and 150 families in that suburb working as manual scavengers. “There is Rampur, Seemapuri, Tarpur, Kachipura, Ashoknagar, Seva Dham; in Seva Dham people go into open fields around their kuchcha houses. But afterwards, they make you clean that open space also,” she says. “Many people just dig a hole in the ground and hang jute mats around it. Then they call people from our community to clean up.”

Meena somehow managed to stay in school until she cleared her secondary level examinations, but education brought little change. “This is what we've been doing for generations and nobody gives us other work. In fact, my mother was married to my father based upon the fact that he lived in a busy, crowded area and there was that much more to carry.”

Meena’s husband, Mukesh, works in a community toilet near their shack in Nand Nagri. Mukesh wanted to apply for a government sweeper’s post, like his father, but could not. “They ask for Rs.50,000 in bribes for a government job. At best, I could hope for occasional work, where I get Rs.100 on a daily-wage basis, but the policeman takes his cut,” he says. “Finally, I cleaned this public toilet, which was run by the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] until last year. Now, it is in private hands. There is no water to clean the toilet, incidentally. I fill my bucket with water from the open gutter outside.” He adds that many people simply squat outside the toilet, instead of sitting on the commode; the safai karamchari is left to clean up.

Meena’s mother Sharada cleans most of the private dry latrines in the area. She says: “There are about 10 dry latrines now. I get Rs.10 per house. Many houses have got pucca latrines now. But the way they are constructed, the sewage comes from a pipe into the open gutter below. And we have to clean this gutter. On many days the gutter overflows with excreta and when there isn't enough water to wash it away, it accumulates and dries. My husband sweeps it into a corner and I lift it out of the gutter using two pieces of plastic and put it into a basket.”

Even Mahatma Gandhi’s Gujarat has not learnt to clean its own toilets. There are about 55,000 scavengers in Gujarat, according to the Navsarjan Trust, which has been leading the movement in the State. Its founder, Martin Macwan, believes that it is impossible to determine correctly the size of the problem because people refuse access to their homes. “We can know only about those employed with the government, local civic bodies or panchayats. The estimates are based on the population of Balmikis, the kind of work they engage in, and sample surveys,” he says. “The State government does nothing except allocate money. The scavengers are made to believe that this is their work and they cannot do anything else, so they don't want to talk about it.”

Clearly, the State governments are not going to talk about it either, if they can help it. Haryana and Punjab claim they have no manual scavengers. However, visits to localities in the two States showed that they had not only failed in their commitment to eradicating manual scavenging but also lied to the Supreme Court.

At Sanoli Road, a locality in Panipat town in Haryana, Frontline saw at least five dry latrines and met three scavengers. Bhagwati, who lives in Deha basti, has spent her whole life doing precisely the task the civic authorities deny the existence of—cleaning dry latrines manually. She says that she carries narak (hell, in Hindi). “I have been doing this ever since I can remember. My mother did it, my sister did it and I am doing it.” The only saving grace, according to Bhagwati, is that there is no lack of water in the area. “As it is, my hands and feet and waist get marked by the ‘narak’. At least, I can bathe after work,” she says.

Bala, 35, lives in what is commonly known as Balmiki basti in Panipat town and has been cleaning dry latrines in some of the houses in the area for the past 18 years. She would gladly stop doing it now if only she had an alternative. “Who wants to lift other people's filth? But I am forced to because we're so poor. No household gives me more than Rs.15-20,” she says.

However, as far as the State government is concerned, people like Bhagwati and Bala do not exist. Its affidavit filed this year in the Supreme Court claims that until 1992 there were 2.02 lakh dry latrines but these were phased out and not a single one remains. It also claims that the Rs.18.36 crores received from the Centre was used up for training and rehabilitation, that 15,739 scavengers were rehabilitated and that “Haryana is a scavenger-free State”.

Punjab has a similar take. The State government conducted a survey in 1992 after the Centre launched the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependants. The scheme, which was to be implemented by the States, enabled beneficiaries to get vocational training and be settled in alternative professions. It also provided households below the poverty line an 80 per cent subsidy to build flush latrines.

At that time, Punjab identified 12,444 scavenger families. In the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court this year the State claimed: “Since banks were not providing timely loans to the beneficiaries, the Punjab Scheduled Castes Land Development and Finance Corporation also started disbursing loans to them under its own scheme to avoid hardship to this class. The pace of the scheme was very slow as scavengers were not coming forward to avail the loan under this scheme; therefore, fresh survey for identification of scavengers was got conducted [ sic] through Deputy Commissioners in all the districts of the State. As a result, only 531 scavengers were identified.”

How this statistical miracle occurred is anybody's guess. Of the 531 people identified, the State claimed that 389 “rehabilitated on their own and remaining 142 scavengers have been rehabilitated by the Corporation”. Most of them are women and that they are “on their own” is clear to them.

A major hurdle to the eradication of scavenging is the Railways. The tracks have to be cleaned manually since coaches have the ‘open discharge’ system, and most stations are not equipped with concretised platforms that would allow waste to be washed away with jets of water. In their response to the Supreme Court, the railways cited lack of money. The Railways claim that a proposal to fit fully sealed latrines is “under consideration” and “various technologies shall be tried out”, but refuse to set themselves a deadline to end the present practice.

Challenges ahead

In the 13 years since the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act there has not been a single prosecution; the Act stipulates imprisonment up to a year and fines up to Rs.2,000 or both. “The law is more like a scheme; it has no teeth. The powers rest with the sanitary inspector or the Collector, while the worker himself cannot file a case,” says Wilson. “Workers who clean open gutters, manholes and septic tanks, who are exposed to great risks, are not covered by the Act. Also, though the States have adopted the Act, most have not adopted the rules and regulations along with it.”

While the government has made attempts through various schemes offering loans and subsidies, setting up the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis and the National Safai Karamchari Financing and Development Corporation, they have not succeeded.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in its affidavit, claims that 1.56 lakh people were trained and 4.08 lakh were rehabilitated until 2002, and that Rs.712.14 crores have been released to the States. It also says that there were only about four lakh scavengers in 1989, conveniently omitting to mention more recent statistics.

The Social Justice Ministry, at different points of time, offered five different sets of figures, as stated in the Ninth Report of the Public Accounts Committee. For instance, the number of scavengers identified in Assam went up threefold between 1997 and 1999.

Interestingly, an audit of the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers for the period 1992 to 2002 by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) threw up a maze of conflicting data. In fact, the CAG report on the audit said the Rs.600-crore grant given by the Centre to the States had “gone, literally, down the latrine”. The latest scheme is a National Action Plan for the Total Eradication of Manual Scavenging by 2007, under which the responsibility for liberation and rehabilitation has been shifted to the Ministry of Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation, which is the nodal Ministry to deal with the issue.

However, the Centre cannot resolve this problem alone, for `sanitation' is a State subject and manual scavenging is, finally, a sanitation issue and, more importantly, a health issue.

The SKA petition had mentioned a study by the Environmental Sanitation Institute, Gandhi Ashram, which said the majority of scavengers suffered from anaemia, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Besides, 62 per cent of them had respiratory diseases, 32 per cent had skin diseases, 42 per cent had jaundice and 23 per cent had trachoma, leading to blindness. Many died of carbon monoxide poisoning while cleaning septic tanks, it said.

Any public health official would agree that septic tanks themselves are a health hazard. Sewage and storm-water drains often mix, and the effluent flows into the local river. Open gutters are another menace, making whole populations vulnerable to malaria, dengue, gastroenteritis, hepatitis and many other diseases.

Unfortunately, government and municipal authorities tend to ignore sanitation because it does not bring the voters’ wrath upon their heads as urgently as, say, water and power supply would do. It takes a plague, as it did in Surat, to make them sit up and smell the sewage.

As far as the primary issue of dry latrines is concerned, there is no way of countering it other than by demolishing all existing units.

Uttaranchal, in fact, may have inadvertently struck the nail on the head when it filed an affidavit saying, “As long as dry latrines remain in existence, the scavengers to clean the same will also remain.”

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