News on COVID-19 and headlines around the gut-wrenching Hathras rape together obscured a new proposed Bill. The contents of the proposed Manual Scavenging Prohibition Bill are of little interest to the average reader. Nevertheless, it impacts several thousands of people who work constantly to keep our cities clean. Occasionally, as when the pandemic burst on us, in a gesture of ultimate tokenism, we praised them, somewhat patronisingly.
For one brief moment during the COVID-19 rhetoric, sanitation workers were acknowledged as the unsung heroes who work every single day, risking their lives, to keep us all safe. Otherwise, the lives of manual scavengers – the people, the caste (almost exclusively Dalits) who clean our toilets all over India go unnoticed.
They are an army of people who do a thankless, filthy job, but more importantly, so criminally neglected and uncared for that they have become invisible. The cleaning crew, known as “sanitation workers”, “sweepers” and “scavengers” are not even provided with the bare minimum necessities to perform the demeaning, filthy tasks they are condemned to do by virtue of their birth.
Sadly, even after 73 years of Independence, and promises after promises made by several governments, men and women, mostly from the Dalit community, still clean human excreta with their bare hands and a broom. This, despite the fact that the 1993 law banning manual scavenging in India was amended in 2013, which provides for punishment for engaging any person for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
This year, the government has yet again planned to make the law stringent by proposing to amend the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
Most readers, cannot even begin to imagine what the life of a manual scavenger is like. Most would, like I did, think the reports are grossly exaggerated. But our sanitation workers still die regularly, drowning in liquid shit, year after year. Even in 2020. Think about that whenever you read a sweeper dies in a septic tank. Drowning is a dreadful way to die. But in India, men die almost every day, gasping for breath, choking, drowning painfully as the black sewer sludge fills their mouths, then lungs, before finally finishing them off.
For a few thousand rupees, people from the Valmiki community – a sub-caste that is considered the lowest among Dalits, take that inhuman plunge to unblock India’s manholes, without masks or protective gear. This sight has become so commonplace that we no longer notice it.
I followed Bezwada Wilson, a Ramon Magsaysay award winner and co-founder and national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), to the workplace of Valmiki women to get a ringside view of ground zero. This was over 15 years ago. Before that, I had written about manual scavenging in 1997 for Frontline magazine. Then a book, Endless Filth in 1999.
When I read about the proposed 2020 Bill, I phoned Wilson. “Has nothing changed?” I asked. “The change has been incremental,’ he replied. ‘The worst hell holes are found in Rajasthan; in Bundelkhand, in Dholpur, in Ajmer. Parts of Uttar Pradesh are still bad. These are expected. But surprisingly, even a state as progressive as Tamil Nadu has small towns where women clean filthy public toilets with brooms, buckets and their bare hands. Just outside Coimbatore is one such place. Our SKA workers face harassment when they attempt to stop Valmikis cleaning these toilets. They are so filthy, its inhuman.”
Wilson’s decades-long battle has produced some change. And there are many people working on the issue, unknown and unsung. But he feels that until every man and woman has put down that broom, his task will not be over.
At first glance, the new proposed Bill appears promising. It proposes to completely mechanise sewer cleaning and provide better protection at work and compensation in case of accidents. Currently, engaging anyone for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is punishable with imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of Rs 5 lakh or both. The new Bill proposes to make the law banning manual scavenging more stringent by increasing both the imprisonment term and the fine amount.
It aims to modernise existing sewage systems and address the problem of non-sewered areas; put in place faecal sludge and septage management systems for mechanised cleaning of septic tanks; and set up sanitation response units with help lines.
While this looks promising on paper, SKA pointed out that promises have been repeatedly made and broken since 1947. “A judge will hesitate to convict an offender of this Act if the prison sentence is higher. So this is counterproductive,” Wilson said. Other NGOs agree with him.
While technology, modernisation and mechanisation are all absolutely necessary, they argued, it utterly fails to address the safety of sanitation workers. It focuses on the elimination of sewer deaths but little else. Often, slums and areas with low-income households can’t get a piece of land to construct a toilet. This is added to a lack of water connection and waste management for households that have a toilet. Since there is little choice, open defecation, community latrines and public toilets are the norm.
Latrines are overcrowded and disproportionately few in number. For example, in Warangal, in one slum, there are eight seats for more than 60 households. In some places there is nothing. Women defecate wherever they can find a slightly private spot, children and men wherever they please, Wilson told me.
Former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was passionate about the issue, a senior IAS officer, who worked under him, told me. He passed the fairly comprehensive the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and created the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. He even diligently attended as many meetings as he could, unheard of, for a sitting prime minister. Yet, almost 30 years later the practice has not been eliminated, the senior IAS officer told me.
The caste issue
But more importantly, activists pointed out that the proposed Bill is blatantly silent on the core issue: caste. Sanitation remains a caste-based occupation, and children of safai karamcharis are forced to follow in their parents’ footsteps. This Bill does nothing to undo the historical injustice.
Quality education with guaranteed alternate jobs is the bare minimum our society should commit to. Without this, there is little chance that they can escape from the lifetime of demeaning, bottom rung-of-society work their parents and generations of their ancestors have been engaged in since time immemorial.
Laws are undoubtedly needed but true hope lies in activists and NGO groups who are willing to take a stand. It’s a complicated issue, but not an impossible task, given the resources the government wastes on non-essential projects.
The crux of the problem for the children of the sweeper community is caste. Ambedkar advised Dalits to leave their villages and move to cities where because of urban anonymity, they could assume new avatars. In practice, this is fairly difficult. Unless dedicated philanthropists, such as the Azim Premji Foundation and the Tata Trust start schools for Dalit children which are centres of excellence, it is impossible for them to break out of the bondage that centuries of oppression has left them in.
Will anyone take up the challenge to cleanse India of one its worst problems? It will prove a complex, Herculean task but hopefully, not an impossible dream.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a freelance writer based in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu.