Why India Needs to Address Caste-Based Manual Scavenging Before it Aims for A 'Swacch Bharat'

A recent report in the Indian Express states that an inter-ministerial task force has counted up to 53,236 people involved in manual scavenging in India, a four-fold rise from the 13,000-odd such workers accounted for in official records until 2017. A reading list examines manual sanitation work in India. 

In May 2018, two men died at a city hospital after they inhaled toxic gases while they were trapped inside a sewage treatment plant at Vivanta by Taj—Ambassador Hotel in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Four contract workers fell to their death in January 2018 while repairing a nine-metre-long sewer line in Powai, Mumbai.  Less than a week later, three manual scavengers in Bengaluru died of asphyxiation. This is routine news for the workers—the unappreciated, true foot soldiers of “Swachh Bharat” who dive into manholes with minimal protective gear and put their lives at maximum risk.

According to this 2017 Quartz report, “Over the last eight years at least, the death toll among sewer workers has started to converge with that of security forces deployed in the beleaguered state(Kashmir)." India’s sewage system has killed 90 people so far [in 2017].

A recent report in the Indian Express states that an inter-ministerial task force has counted up to 53,236 people involved in manual scavenging in India, a four-fold rise from the 13,000-odd such workers accounted for in official records until 2017.

This reading list of articles published in the EPW examines manual sanitation work in India. 

1) What do Conservancy Workers Experience Daily? 

This article describes what it is like to be a conservancy worker, why things have remained the same over the years, and what can be the way forward.

Ajay, a safai karmachari working with the BMC, while cleaning a small gutter with his bare hands says: 

Aamchi pidhi hech kaam karat hoti, ani pudhe suddha hech kaam karnar aahe (Our entire generation has been doing this work, our next generation will also inherit the same work.) The locals call us kachre wala or gutterwala. They say that the municipal corporation pays you for doing work. We know that we clear garbage and clean gutters, but that does not mean that the people will address us by our occupation. We are also humans. We have feelings too. What they don’t know is that we don’t have basic bathroom and toilet facilities, no changing rooms, no place to have food or even to rest.

2) What is Taking Place Now in the Name of Faecal Sludge Management?

Documents put out by the Government of India give little indication of what mechanical (that is, truck-and-hose) sludge removal looks like, how cleaners live and work, and what therefore has to be modified or reformed as new policies are introduced. This article describes an evening spent by one of the authors with septic tank cleaners and truck drivers in Bengaluru, India’s famed “Silicon Valley.”

Rajesh and Prabhu approach the tank, dragging and uncoiling the pipe with their bare hands. The flip-flops on their feet flap louder on the concrete roof of the septic tank than on the asphalt road that led to it. Rajesh opens the lid. From the look of the sludge and the strength of its smell, it does not seem too old. The tank is almost full. Fresh bubbles form and pop every few seconds on the surface of the turbid sludge. “People pay ₹10,000 per day to stay in this hotel, and their shit smells just like everybody else’s,” says Prabhu.

3) How do Caste Apartheid, Social Exclusion and Poverty Perpetuate this Practice?

This article analyses the causes and consequences of manual scavenging in Ghazipur district, Uttar Pradesh, based on a study that conducted informal interviews of 72 scavengers from different blocks in Ghazipur district. 

It was also found that some scavengers have tried to challenge their social and economic status by changing their jobs. But finally, they have to return to their original profession because of a social boycott and the lack of support from both private and governmental agencies. The law and order machinery has also proved inefficient. For example, Chinta Devi of Meherpur locality, started her shop with a loan arranged by a local NGO and left this menial job. But later she resumed this humiliating job as she faced a severe boycott even by her own community. 

4) How is India’s Poor Sanitation Linked to the Caste System? 

The development of toilet facilities and a modern garbage and sewage management system have been neglected so far because of the reliance on Dalit labour to do these dehumanising jobs. This article argues that as long as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan attempts to delink the relationship between caste and sanitation, its lofty goal of cleaning India will remain unachievable.

Access to Sanitation in Different South Asian Countries

Note that apart from India, the caste system and its attendant discriminations is either weak or more or less absent in the other three South Asian countries. Can we then say that India fares poorly in improving access to sanitation because of the dominance of caste system?

5) Will the Swachh Bharat Campaign Succeed in Addressing the Issues Connected with Manual Scavenging?

This article looks into the Safai Karamchari Andolan which traversed 500 districts of the country with the message "stop killing us." The author asks, “Will the Swachh Bharat campaign succeed in addressing the issues connected with manual scavenging?”

Will Swachh Bharat campaign, a pet project of the government, address the heart of the issue, that is, manual scavenging is an “unclean occupation” and needs to be uprooted from its association with caste and untouchability in India? In years to come protest movements like the Bhim Yatra may succeed in liberating manual scavengers from the inhuman practice and many engaged in manual scavenging may be saved from being killed in the name of “cleanliness” and “hygiene.” One day India, through its Swachh Bharat campaign, may take the matter more seriously to mechanise and modernise the sanitation system with toilets everywhere. But the measure of untouchability that exists in our society will define the extent of “clean (swachh) Bharat” and “clean Indians.”








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