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Manual scavenging: A Deep-Rooted Injustice

  • Published
    4th Jan, 2024

The Karnataka High Court took up suo motu cognisance of the issue based on a report.

Manual scavenging, the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, and disposing of human excreta, persists as a grim reality in contemporary India. Despite legislative measures, this dehumanizing practice is still prevalent, entwined with social, economic, and caste-based complexities.

Persisting Practices:

  • Caste-Based Occupation: Manual scavenging is historically linked to the caste system, particularly affecting the Dalit community. It has been a traditional occupation imposed on certain castes, perpetuating social hierarchy and discrimination. The link between sanitation work and manual scavenging remains strong.
  • Lower Mechanisation: Even with technological advancements, some sanitation jobs are perilously relegated to manual scavengers. Inadequate adoption of modern sanitation technologies, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, contributes to the continued reliance on manual scavenging. Recent examples of death of sanitation workers in Delhi and Karnataka tells the apathy of government and society towards workers.

Challenges and Associated Issues:

  • Degrading Dignity: Manual scavenging strips individuals of their dignity, exposing them to health hazards, humiliation, and societal exclusion. Since “untouchability” was legally abolished by The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, manual scavenging has been regularly discussed in Parliament.
  • The practice was banned through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.
  • In 2013, the government enacted a stronger law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. As per rules, manual cleaning is allowed with precautionary measures only in such cases where machines cannot be deployed.
  • Despite laws prohibiting manual scavenging, implementation loopholes and inadequate enforcement contribute to its persistence. Many engaged in manual scavenging belong to marginalized communities, facing economic vulnerability and limited employment opportunities.

Social Stigma: The association of manual scavenging with particular castes perpetuates social stigma, hindering upward mobility and reinforcing discriminatory practices. Even the Efforts toward rehabilitation and alternative livelihoods for manual scavengers often fall short, leaving individuals trapped in this hazardous profession.

  • Lack of awareness among the general public about the plight of manual scavengers contributes to a muted response and limited advocacy for change.

Why it persists?

Deep-Rooted Discrimination: Caste-based discrimination continues to marginalize certain communities, limiting their access to education, employment, and social mobility.

Ingrained Practices: Generational occupation and societal conditioning contribute to the normalization of manual scavenging within certain communities. Observing the same, the apex court in its decisions have highlighted the plight and apathy.

Those engaged in “India’s dirtiest job” are predominantly Dalits, who face social exclusion and violence across the country owing to their caste identity. “No place in the world sends people to gas chambers to die,” the Supreme Court in 2019 while asking the Centre why protective gear was not provided to sanitation workers.

In its judgment in Delhi Jal Board vs National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers & Ors (2011), the apex court stated: “The human beings who are employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who will not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes. The state and its agencies or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs.”

Lack of Political Will: Comprehensive policy implementation, backed by political will, is often lacking, perpetuating systemic injustices.

Societal Apathy: Apathy toward the struggles faced by manual scavengers allows the practice to persist without adequate public outcry and demand for change.

The eradication of manual scavenging necessitates a multi-faceted approach. This includes stringent enforcement of existing laws, economic empowerment of affected communities, eradicating caste-based discrimination, and raising public awareness to foster a collective resolve against this deeply entrenched social evil. Until these measures are effectively implemented, manual scavenging will persist as a stark reminder of the persistent inequalities within Indian society.

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