Article 21 of Indian Constitution protects the right of citizens to live with dignity. But there is a class of people in India untouched by any form of dignity. The class of people being referred to is manual scavengers. Manual scavengers are people (mostly Dalits) who manually clean, carry, dispose or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets or even bare hands to clean night soil.
While the aforementioned job description is sufficient to prove the horrors of their jobs, it has been elaborated for the record. Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems. Tuberculosis is common. Further, men involved in manual scavenging drinking heavily to escape the horrors of their job. It is common for them to come home in a drunken home and abuse their wives. Not, surprisingly the life expectancy of manual scavengers is only forty years.
They undertake such risks for paltry wages. Men earn between 15 to 300 Rupees a day. Women have it worse earning two rotis every day for each household they work in. If their health risks and medical problems weren’t enough, they are ostracised by the society. They are considered the lowest among Dalits and are a long-standing ridicule of the society.
It is not that efforts in the form of legislation and committee reports have not been taken, the only problem is that the efforts are yet to see substantial results or maybe they are meant to stay only on paper. To illustrate, let’s take the most recent act seeking to protect manual scavengers is the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Under the act, anyone employing a manual scavenger or constructing an insanitary latrine, he shall be punished with imprisonment up to one year or a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 or both.
Out of the many faults in the act, for the purpose of this article only the hypocrisy has been pointed out. Despite the criminalisation, it is the Indian Railways who is the biggest employer of manual scavengers. It contracts 95,000 manual scavengers every year without providing any safety gear. Indian Army and Delhi Jal Board are other examples. In other cases, the local authorities become the abettors for people employing manual scavengers, they often turn a blind eye towards manual scavenging. It is evident from the fact that the no arrests have been made under the act. Further, there are other instances to prove the same. In a village in Haryana, women who used refused to remove night soil from houses of upper-class people were threatened by the Panchayat that their land rights would be seized.
Government schemes have also been complicit in increasing the number of manual scavengers. Schemes such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has created more toilets at the expense of manual scavengers. Under the scheme, households are given grants to make toilets, most often due to high cost of toilet constructions, they make single pit toilets. These toilets need to be cleaned by manually for which manual scavengers are employed.
The life of manual scavengers is nothing short of a nightmare and while the government’s job should be to show them light of day, they have failed the manual scavengers on multiple levels on multiple occasions.