Sewers are gas chambers where manual scavengers are sent to die
1st Oct, 2019
Sewers in India are like gas chambers where manual scavengers are sent to die, the Supreme Court remarked.
- Every month four to five persons are losing their lives in manual scavenging
- A bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra asked Attorney General KK Venugopal as to why the government had failed to provide protective gear to manual scavengers.
- It also questions whether untouchability as a practice had really been abolished.
- Manual scavenging was banned 25 years ago with the passage of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993
Who is a 'manual scavenger'?
- Any person who has been employed to handle undecomposed human waste from an insanitary latrine, open drain or pit or railway track is a manual scavenger under this law.
- The person could have been employed by any one - say, someone from their village or by an agency or contractor.
- It does not matter if she was given regular employment or engaged on contract basis, she is covered under this law.
- Exception - Any person who has been employed to clean human waste and does so with the help of the appropriate protective gear and equipment will not be considered a manual scavenger under this law.
- Another group of people called 'safai karamcharis' are also sometimes considered as manual scavengers - however, they usually refer to people working as sweepers or cleaning workers in the municipalities, government or private organisations.
What is Manual Scavenging?
- Manual scavenging is the act of cleaning sewers or removal of waste from toilets without the use of safety equipment. In simple terms, untreated human excreta are removed from pit latrines or bucket toilets using buckets or shovels by hand.
- Manual scavengers use basic tools such as a bucket lined with a sack and a handle. The worker then carries the waste manually and takes it to the disposal sites.
- Manual scavenging is regarded as inhuman and a violation of the law. It constitutes problems that encompass domains of health and occupation, human rights and social justice, gender and caste, and human dignity.
What is this law (The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) about?
Law makes it an offence to:
• Employ people as manual scavengers to clean insanitary latrines.
• Employ people to clean sewers and septic tanks without protective gear.
• Construct insanitary latrines.
• Not demolish or convert insanitary latrines within a certain period of this Act coming into force.
Causes of Manual Scavenging
- Lack of waterborne latrines: The major latrine used in urban areas is the dry latrines which are a major cause of manual scavenging. In India, for example, there are approximately 26 million insanitary latrines based on a report by Housing-Listing and Housing Census, 2011. Moreover, in rural areas, there are no strategies put forward to convert dry toilets.
- Lack of incomplete rehabilitation and employment opportunities: Most countries with scavenging problem lack means of fully rehabilitating the sanitation workers. Lack of employment opportunities is a major concern and a crucial player in the inclusion program. Also, lack of schemes that would help the families whose bread winners are manual scavengers contribute to its existence.
- Lack of liberation strategies: There are no proper strategies put forward to liberate manual scavengers psychologically. This pushes those in the practice to get even deeper and deeper into the practice of manual scavenging.
- Social stigmatization: People regard the manual scavengers as untouchable because of their work. Therefore, the society is not ready to accept and include them in community activities. No employer offers them a job and also, landlords bar them from renting their houses.
- Denial of the existence of manual scavengers: The government and other major private institutions deny the existence of scavenging despite the deaths reported especially in India. As a result, no measures are taken to solve this problem.
Effects of Manual Scavenging
- Health-related problems: The scavengers are exposed to gases such as hydrogen disulfide, carbon (IV) oxide, ammonia, and methane. Long exposure to hydrogen disulfide can lead to death by asphyxia. Also, the individual may experience epileptiform convulsions and may fall unconscious and later die. The gas is also associated with visual acuity.
- Structural violence against manual scavengers: Manual scavengers are exposed to two types of violence that are social violence and violence associated with caste discrimination. Caste discrimination and the job condition can cause them to be exposed to physical violence. Furthermore, the culture in India on caste is used to justify violence against them. For instance, most people regard them as illiterate and lazy people who do not to take up manual jobs. They further add that they opt for manual scavenging because it offers easy money.
- Caste and gender discrimination: Most of the manual scavengers are women and members of the marginal class. The caste is regarded as a lower class and is excluded from moving to a better occupation. As a result, the scavenging work is seen as part of their natural occupation. Also, the marginal caste from rural areas moving to urban areas to seek a better livelihood always ends up in the same occupation.
- Social discrimination: Most manual scavengers are stigmatized by the community due to the nature of their job. They are regarded as untouchable and they are forced to accept their condition. This problem is much deeper as their children are also discriminated and forced to occupy the same work as their parents.
Solutions of Manual Scavenging
- Involvement of different officials and community in initiatives: In order to tackle the problem through initiatives such as Namma toilets in India, it would be necessary to involve all the major skate holders involved. They include the District officials, Relations officer, Chief Medical Officer, and District Supply Officer among any other relevant officials. The inclusion of the community around the areas that are most affected into the program is also of equal importance.
- Creating Awareness: District Nodal Officers, NGOs and health officers should educate the community on devastating effect caused by dry latrines. They should also educate the mass on health issues, hygiene practices, and sanitation. Government officials should inform on the legal implications that are related to engaging in scavenging and having dry toilets.
- Rehabilitation and reintegration of Manual Scavengers: Creation of more employment is one of the most important rehabilitation processes. The jobs created would aim to offer equal opportunities to the locals. The jobs created also act as a means to assimilate manual scavengers into the community. Other areas that are associated with social inclusion should also be established for instance the loaning schemes.
- Low-Cost Latrine Model: The same old model of pit latrine used by the community can be used to construct small pit toilets in a cost-effective manner. In order to ensure that the villagers fully participate in the activity, they can be provided with building materials and shown how to construct the latrines. The demonstration can be done in different areas within a given region. They can thereafter use the materials given to build the toilets themselves.
- Training the locals: Training the manual scavengers and their family how to construct a pit latrine would serve two purposes. First, the number of people with knowledge on construction of a latrine would increase and therefore, more latrines would be constructed in the area. Secondly, the scavengers who gain required knowledge in the construction of pit latrines and can then seek for a job related to the same. The training can be organized by the various organizations with the help of experienced masons.
- Enforcement of law: The government should enforce the law that prohibits scavenging. The law in a country such as India was enacted in 1993 and changes have been made in 2013. However. Governmental institutions are reluctant to act and go to great lengths in denying the existence of manual scavengers. People subjecting others into such inhuman activities should be arrested.
- Investing in proper human waste management equipment: The government should invest in pieces of machinery that can be used to clean ditches and septic tanks. They can import the pieces of machinery or tools in case they are not locally available. Also, the government can provide the sanitation workers with quality protective gears as seen in South Africa.