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Life and Work of Manual Scavengers

‘When You Start Doing This Work, It Is Hard to Eat Dal’

In 2013, manual scavenging, or the cleaning of “dry” latrines with unprotected hands, was abolished in India. Yet, millions of dry latrines are still manually serviced by Dalit labour. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Mission has put little effort into the health and dignity of sanitation workers relative to its efforts on subsidising and encouraging latrine-building. A few days spent with the Valmiki community in Lucknow are recounted.

It has been almost four years since, invoking the name of Mahatma Gandhi and declaring that India needed toilets over temples, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Its overarching goal is to eliminate open defecation; building new latrines, increasing their use, and raising awareness are the cornerstones of this significant initiative. Though the SBM (Urban) guidelines clearly call for either connecting toilets to sewers or constructing on-site treatment, these guidelines may not be enforced locally. Millions of existing, and even some new latrines, remain “dry.” Household-level dry latrines in India, despite the abolition of manual scavenging, continue to be serviced by scavengers.

Much has been written about the dehumanising conditions of their work, and the stigmas they face in their lives. It is not clear how the SBM will mitigate their conditions; it is not clear if the demand for their labour will increase or decrease in its wake. It is clear, however, that India’s ambitious sanitation initiative has to put as much effort and financing into the dignity and health of its sanitation workers, and into enforcing its toilet design guidelines as it is putting into eliminating open defecation. This article describes a slice of life in one community of manual scavengers from the Valmiki caste in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in December 2014. We tell the story in the voice of C S Sharada Prasad.1

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Updated On : 14th Aug, 2018


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