Features Wednesday, September 03, 2014 - 05:30
The News Minute | August 27, 2014 | 02:18 pm IST Employing manual scavengers, though prohibited in the country, still seems to be a practice followed regularly in many parts of the country. In fact, many men and women are often forced to carry out the activity of physically cleaning human excrement, simply because they belong to the lower castes or hail from poor or marginalised communities. Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international organisation that works towards defending human rights, recently published a report titled 'Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India'. This report is based on research Human Rights Watch conducted between November 2013 and July 2014 in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. The report highlights how people, those belonging to lower castes, are forced to manually collect human waste from private and public dry toilets (where the system of flushing is absent, and are not connected to a septic tank), septic tanks and open drains. Those who refuse such work are often intimidated with dire consequences like denying 'access to community land and resources or threatened with eviction, frequently with the backing of village councils and other officials'. Those who work as manual scavengers are also treated as untouchables, and are not allowed to use community resources like wells. They are denied proper wages in several places, and are instead paid back with food, harvest or old clothes; which is also, seldom, regularly.  Those who refuse manual scavenging may also face violence. However, the most difficult aspect is the social and economic pressure these people face- they are expected to clean toilets because of the community they belong to and any attempt to find another source of livelihood is shunted. Those who manage to acquire some education too often are left with no choice but to return to manual scavenging; because people refuse to employ them in other professions. Bablu, who cleans garbage and excrement from drains in Bharatpur city, had no other option but to do this since he was not getting a job anywhere else. "I studied till 8th standard, but here we don’t get any other job no matter where we go. I have tried. If I go to a hotel to find work, they ask my caste. Once I tell them I am Valmiki, they will only give me work cleaning the toilets. I want to do something else, I know this is discrimination, but what can I do?", he says in the report. However, discrimination is not restricted to just those who are made to perform the inhuman task; their children too face constant discrimination in schools by teachers and students alike. The report describes an incident that the son of manual scavenger had to face- he was beaten up by a teacher in the school because he touched the utensils of a boy from the upper caste. "Each time he beat me, the teacher would say— “You are not allowed to touch it! If you touch it again, I will beat you again!”, the boy is quoted as saying in the report.  Manual scavenging also pose several health risks to the workers, which are blatantly neglected, including 'constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning'. They are not provided with even the basic safety equipments like masks, gloves or shoes.  Baby, from Jharda, in Ujjain district, Madhya Pradesh, is quoted in the report as saying "Beginning when I was 15 or 16, my sister-in-law and I cleaned toilets in 100 houses. I carried the basket on my head and during the rains it would leak all over my body. My hair fell out in patches. No one helped me. They ridiculed me." Although the government has passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the ground reality seems to be very different. The report also suggests steps the government can take to ensure proper implementation of the Act.  As Ashif Shaikh, founder and convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign against manual scavenging, explains in the report, "The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights". The report also cites examples of people who have rebelled against the system, going against all odds and refusing to work as manual scavengers. Some have achieved success, refusing to bow down to pressure, and several others are following suit. In what can be considered as one of the basest of all professions, manual scavenging is a form of social evil and caste based discrimination at its worst. It is a gross injustice to the human dignity and needs to be put an end to. Here is a video uploaded by Human Rights Watch, on manual scavenging in India, on YouTube recently.
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