People are made to carry out manual scavenging in two basic forms: the cleaning of dry latrines, and the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Both are illegal under the Manual Scavenging Act.
In the first case, it is casteist attitudes which enforce people into carrying out this labour and then perpetuate their exploitation.
In the second, it is an urban mess coupled with ignorance, lack of awareness or deliberate disregard for the law which makes people carry out this work. This category is often rationalised with the logic of demand and supply.
So, how do we end this? Here’s a brief look and what can be done and what needs to be done:
The Karnataka Safai Karmchari Commission has taken a step towards eliminating a crucial barrier to end the practice. Its Chairman Narayana – himself a manual scavenger once – told The News Minute that when it comes to cleaning the drains, jetting and sucking machines can only be used on large roads. In the guise of “necessity” contractors and civic officials employ people to carry out manual scavenging by descending into the sewerage through manholes.
“We have recommended to the government to place orders for machines that are small enough to negotiate the smaller lanes. Companies can manufacture them according to the customers’ requirements,” Narayana says. A meeting is scheduled next week, to discuss this recommendation.
Director of Chennai-based Change India, A Narayanan says that the government has made it a criminal offence to ask someone to carry out manual scavenging but has not backed it up with redesigning septic tanks.
“Septic tanks here are designed badly. They have engineering defects which means that after a point, a machine cannot clean it,” he says.
Sucking machines suck out liquid waste from septic tanks, but sometimes, faecal matter hardens and solidifies. Narayana says that when this occurs, a jetting machine is to be used. Where even this does not work, a worker is to be given protective gear that ensures he/she does not come in direct contact with faecal matter, he says. But these laws are observed in the breach.
As for underground drainage, many cities do not have sewerage that covers the whole city. Sometimes, out of sheer laziness, incompetence, or deliberate neglect, sewage lines are connected to storm water drains which then get clogged and require human intervention to unclog.
“The culture of a community is reflected in what you find inside the sewer,” Narayanan says.
Open drains are also badly designed, allowing people to dump solid waste into open drains, which adds to the problem. To address this, corruption in local bodies needs to be tackled. Civic bodies also need to provide dustbins and create awareness about not littering.
Proper waste disposal
Narayanan says that it doesn’t help that people flush all kinds of things down the toilet with no thought for its repercussions. Improper disposal of condoms, sanitary napkins and diapers contributes to clogged drains which machines cannot clear. This also creates circumstances forcing people to enter sewers.
Again, the point about not dumping things into storm water drains.
“Ubanisation happens at a very fast rate and unless you plan ahead, you cannot keep up with it,” Narayanan remarks. Our urban local bodies have clearly failed at this.
The decade between the 2001 and 2011 Census saw the highest jump in rural to urban migration. Simply put, more people are living in cities than ever before.
Urbanization comes with its set of problems – influx of workers, makeshift colonies and commercial and residential areas with no access to proper sanitation or drainage.
Add to this, the mess created by deliberate violation of building laws and city plans by residents, officials, builders and anyone in power who chooses to do so because they can.
“Now we’re in a situation where you can’t widen roads or install bigger sewers without uprooting many people. It’s a logistical nightmare,” Narayanan says.
Unravelling this mess requires residents to work with authorities and develop an overall culture of following the law.
Disposal of shit is each individual’s responsibility. Nobody should be made to clean another person’s faeces, in any form.
This is an attitude we need to develop, coming as we do, from a (possibly) uniquely Indian history of forcing certain Dalit communities to manually pick up and dispose of the faeces of an entire village or town. This also requires us to engage with caste privileges.
Up to the present, the majority of manual scavengers are Dalits. But in the past few years, desperation for work has forced even non-Dalits to take up this work.
Where there are dry latrines, Dalit communities often have no way out, because it becomes the only source of work for them as no one else will hire ‘polluted’ people even if they give it up. Building toilets alone isn’t enough. The government needs to actively engage with people and convince them to use it, to stop them from forcibly extracting this labour.
“Officials, contractors and the public are responsible for this (deaths). Everybody needs to change,” Narayana says.