Dausa (Rajasthan): Twenty-five years after India banned manual scavenging, men and women of the Valmiki community in Dausa are still manually cleaning open drains in which excreta from insanitary latrines is being flushed – but under a new name, the contractual sanitary worker.
In 2017, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment conducted a survey to enumerate the number of manual scavengers. There were 338 names listed from Rajasthan and 124 from Dausa district alone. The presumption was, once identified, men and women employed as scavengers would be rehabilitated and have a real chance at a life of dignity.
The Wire spoke to manual scavengers in Dausa listed in the 2017 survey and found that manual scavenging is still operational but not admitted by authorities. Rehabilitation assistance has been patchy and the same surveyed people continue to engage in the same work but under a different name.
Manju Devi Valmiki, a resident of the Valmiki Basti in Khari Khothi area of Dausa, is unaware about the provisions in law that prohibit the employment of a manual scavenger. She is a sanitation worker, contracted by a private firm. Her name was among those surveyed and identified as a manual scavenger. The rehabilitation assistance of Rs 40,000 that was supposed to help her start a life of dignity came just a few weeks ago.
“Seven years back, when I started working, I was cleaning the drains manually and till date, I’m doing that way. Nothing has changed in our lives except that the people have stopped us calling ‘Bhangi’ now.”
Manju is among the 400 workers employed by private contractors registered with the municipal council of Dausa to manually clean roads and open drains where night soil – human excreta – is being flushed. She is what state governments refer to as a contractual sanitation worker, no different from the manual scavenger.
“Drains here are not clean like the ones in the cities, they are gutters. Most of the houses have connected their sewer line with open drains that we clean every day,” said Kalu, a contractual sanitation worker from Harijan basti near Ambedkar circle in Dausa.
Kalu also submitted a self-declaration form for manual scavenging with the municipal council but did not receive any assistance. He continues to clean open drains and septic tanks for the contractor.
Rehabilitating lives with Rs 40,000
Some like Manju and Bhagwan Sahai Valmiki did receive one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 but the stigma associated with manual scavenging hasn’t allowed him to switch to another means of livelihood.
“We received Rs 40,000 after the survey but for how many days one can survive on that amount. We are still cleaning the drains that are full of human excreta and go down the septic tanks if the need be, nothing has changed for us.”
Bhagwan is employed as a sanitation worker by a private contractor and daily cleans open drains, just like Mohan Valmiki, also a casual sanitation worker, enumerated in the government survey
“What other work can we do? If, for instance, we start selling fruits and vegetables, no one will purchase from us because of our caste. Even if we wish to do something other than cleaning, we can’t do it,” says Mohan.
The farce of ‘manual scavenging free’ districts
One of the ways in which authorities are able to claim that their district is “manual scavenging free” is through handing over scavenging work to private firms, who then employ people like Bhagwan and Kalu to do the task of cleaning excrement. The government sees them as “contractual sanitary workers”, though their work and life remains exactly where it was as a manual scavenger.
Another way is through mechanisation. Eight sewer machines, seven of which are owned and managed by private contractors, are used for the five municipal zones of Dausa. Authorities claim these are used to clean septic tanks and the human interface via manual scavengers is close to nil.
Speaking to The Wire, Dilip Kumar Sharma, commissioner, Municipal Council of Dausa said, “There is no sewer system in Dausa, we have two-pit system where the septic tanks are cleaned by emptier machines. These machines are owned both by the municipal council and the contractors registered with us. The cleaning process is fully mechanised.”
The reality, though, is starkly different.
“The use of machine differs case to case. If there is more to solid waste blockage than liquid in the septic tank, then the machine is of no help and it will have to be cleaned manually,” Govind, a sewer contractor in Dausa, told The Wire.
“The machine can suck only liquid waste, so, we have to get down in the tanks almost every time. At many places in Dausa, the machine can’t get into the lanes, there, the tanks are cleaned manually,” said Kalu.
Rs 211 a day for cleaning human waste
The sanitary worker employed by a private contractor gets Rs 211 for a day of work and nothing else.
“Injury is totally our responsibility. The contractor might help us get the first aid, but the rest of the treatment is on us. Forget treatment, they don’t provide us even the brooms for cleaning,” said Niktu Devi, a casual sanitation worker from Khari Khothi Mohalla, also part of the survey.
The government says it can do little in such circumstances. “Our contract is completely based on the amount of garbage collected [we pay Rs 2,400 per tonne of waste collected], not on labour. So we have no say in between the contractor and his workers, but we make sure that they are given minimum wages,” says Sharma.
“Conditions of the workers can improve if we could engage them directly but there are no such instructions from the government to do so,” he adds.
“We have cleaned the nation for years”
Despite the grim nature of work, when the Rajasthan government opened 75 government vacancies for various posts of sanitation workers in Dausa, there was a rush of applicants. The posts are open to all categories – General, Other Backward Classes (OBC), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST). The Valmiki community, which comes under the Schedule Caste category in Rajasthan was unhappy with this decision. They believed it reduced their chances at a government job as a sanitary worker.
“It’s our community [Valmiki] that has cleaned the nation for years. Now, when there is an opportunity to secure a future by seeking a government job, candidates from other castes are also applying and are getting an advantage over us. Isn’t this discrimination?” Ram Krishan, a contractual sanitation worker who has been working for the past 20 years, told The Wire.
Shruti Jain is a freelance journalist.
#Grit, where this story first appeared, is a new initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy.. The Manual Scavenging Project is the first in a series of deep dive editorial projects.