The National Capital of India, New –Delhi witnessed death of a sanitation worker while cleaning a sewer at a city government-run hospital in August this year. 10 deaths of sanitation workers were reported within July-August in Delhi itself. These figures mirror statistics of deaths occurring in just one metro in two months. The estimates from Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) pitch the number to nearly 22,000 deaths of manual scavengers on work every year across India. These deaths are indexical of the invisibility, indignity, non-recognition and denial of human rights of a section which cleans the scourge of the fellow humans. As the world observes the Human Rights Day today (December 10), evoking the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights call to stand for equality, justice and human dignity and as the Indian Constitution enshrines multiple provisions of the Declaration, we examine the case of manual scavengers in India, the lowest in the rungs of the hierarchy. We reflect on the larger apathy, as how policy makers, the state machinery and society as a whole have failed to reach out to the most vulnerable and the socially excluded: the manual scavengers and have failed to uphold their rights.
Who are Manual Scavengers?
The people who remove human excreta have been addressed as manual scavengers in the country by the existing discourse/literature and they largely belong to the Dalit community (in some places some Muslim community belonging to lower castes also pursue the work) and are considered the lowest in the hierarchical structure. Manual scavengers are subsumed under layers of Dalit sub-castes and face extreme forms of caste discrimination and untouchability. Manual Scavengers have been largely addressed as Bhangis, Chuhras, Arunthathiyars, Rellis, Madigas, Mehtars, Pakhis, Thotis, Sakiliars etc. depending upon the states of residence.
Banned by Legislation but continues unabated
The de-humanising practice of manual scavenging is officially banned since decades in India under The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 (which makes provisions for the abolition of this practice, and for the identification and rehabilitation of manual scavengers) and under the more recent; The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013;which revised and broadened the Act of 1993 and established more stricter punishments. In December 2015, the Rajya Sabha had unanimously passed the SC/ST bill that provided for stringent action against those compelling any member of Dalit or tribal communities to carry human or animal carcasses or do manual scavenging. The 1993 Act outlined prohibition of and or maintenance of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. However, as reflected by figures of Census 2011, there are still 26 lakh insanitary latrines in the country where human excreta is either being deposited into open drains or removed manually and manual scavengers continue to clean these dry latrines inspite of the bans imposed. Barred legally and with periodic appointment of various committees and commissions by the government to look into the plight of the scavenging community, manual scavenging continues unabated across different states of India in contravention to these legislations and Acts. The states complicity in its continuation reflects gross violation of human rights.
The Number Paradox/Mismatch: Failure to recognize existence of Manual Scavengers
Statistics from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (2011) outline that 1, 80,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for their livelihood in the country. Around 167,487 households work as a manual scavengers, according to a reply in the Lok Sabha (Parliament’s lower house) by the Ministry of Rural Development on February 25, 2016. According to different human rights activists committed to eradication of manual scavenging, there is huge asymmetry between the official data concerning the number of people involved in manual scavenging across India. These anomalies in the figures reflect the disinterest of the state machinery to acknowledge the existence of the Manual Scavengers and practice of manual scavenging as well refutes their enumeration. For example, statistics from the state of Karnataka mirror the summary of the larger paradox existing widely across the states of India. Karnataka is a precursor in the Southern region to advocate for a ban on manual scavenging as early as in 1970’s; the official figures quote different numbers relative to those who are actually involved in it. The2011 Census puts the figures of Karnataka as topping in Southern areas of India with nearly 15,375 manual scavengers. In 1993-94 the Karnataka state along with different NGOs conducted a survey putting up a figure of 14,555 manual scavengers in the state both in rural and urban areas. In 2002-03 to figures went up to 26,004 and in 2007-08 it were 40,692 scavengers. The government sources in Karnataka estimate the manual scavengers to be nearly 57,000; however the surveys and studies carried on by different human rights organizations and the civil society organizations, pitch the number of manual scavengers to be more than 3.3 lakhs now. These figures from a single state echo the situation across other places in India also.
Facing Human Rights Violations and Social Exclusion
Through a recent case study on the manual scavengers in Karnataka, it has discerned that the overall scenario of manual scavengers across India is a grim picture of denial and neglect of human rights and severe violations. Lack of accountability of systems and absence of dignity, facing systemic disadvantages, rampant discrimination and lack of quality of care in health, education, social services etc. are amongst some of the noticeable hurdles faced by these marginalized groups. Through the case study it has evinced that manual scavenging is often thrust on the Dalit Community members. Safaikarmacharis are mostly under the contract system and have not been regularized. Manual scavengers end up doing the work as they hardly have any other alternative employment skills and opportunities and have little access to medical care. Contracting out of sanitation and manual scavenging work is a common practice and there is a variance in the remuneration of contract and permanent manual scavenging workers. Gender disparity is visible in manual scavenging, women contract workers are relatively more marginalized and get lesser remunerations relative to men contract workers. Manual scavenging community members have no savings, and there is no job security and contract workers children mostly drop out of school due to financial constraints. Almost all manual scavengers (and Safaikarmacharis) remain temporary workers on contract even after decades of service, and barely earn minimum wages. Alcohol intake is a common habit among men and largely the manual scavengers are working without any safety equipment’s, face serious health hazards and accidents and meet untimely deaths on work due to effect of obnoxious gases while cleaning manholes and septic tanks. Their health problems are not only attributed to their occupational hazards, but also to the compounded effects of poverty, malnutrition and alcoholism. Broadly it has manifested that there is lack of registration of FIRs in case of deaths of manual scavengers besides absence of compensation on deaths of manual scavengers and lack of proper rehabilitation even after pronounced by legislation.
Lessons from struggle in Karnataka
The state of Karnataka though earns the standing of banning manual scavenging by a Government order as early in 1970’s, but the struggle against manual scavenging has been continuously steered by civil society organizations like Thamate, Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti, different human rights activists, Dalit movements, PUCL and other alliances and networks like Jana Swasthya Abhiyan, Safai Karmachari Andolan etc. Using multi-pronged approaches of mobilization, empowerment, rehabilitation and affirmative action these civil society bodies and likeminded alliances have struggled to end caste-based occupation and caste-based violence and atrocities. Thamate in particular in association with its coalitions has endeavored to establish the identity of the manual scavengers by creating evidence to say they exist as the state denies their existence. The CBO monitors the denials (health) of entitlements and documents evidence for negotiations of the health and human rights of the manual scavengers though photo/video documentation besides using multiple methods for community empowerment process like mobilizing community – organizing them, linking them with unions, conducting fact finding , public dialogues and community level research on manual scavengers and providing support in education of children of manual scavengers as well for alternative skills and job opportunities. The human rights organization has used legal interventions, RTIs, media advocacy to visibilise deaths and demand compensation for the deaths of the manual scavengers. Other efforts have gone into ensuring a fair wage (most workers don’t even get paid minimum wages), job permanency, access to social security benefits like PF, ESI, health cards, and also access to personal safety equipment. The major success of the struggle waged in the state since nearly four decades has been the move of the state government in 2017 to abandon the contract system and regularize 11,000 Safaikarmacharis working across different civic bodies in the state. According to human rights activists in Karnataka, this is just a partial victory in the campaign movement working for the rights of manual scavenging wading against lack of political will and the bureaucratic caveats and hegemonic castes.
The situation of the manual scavengers in the state of Karnataka mirrors the condition across the nation. However the small steps gotten by the struggle in the state can be emulated for mobilization of the most marginalized and for negotiation for their rights. These struggles do however raise some vantage points for reflection as how many Human Rights Days will be required to uphold the rights of these last in the rungs of hierarchy. And how long will the structurally marginalized and the disempowered groups face challenges of claiming their entitlements, of negotiating with service providers and of seeking responsiveness of the systems.
*This article draws largely on the work of Thamate in Karnataka and from a COPASAH case study on Manual Scavengers in Karnataka. Thamate is a community based organization in Karnataka and is engaged in empowering the marginalized community of Madigas (Dalit community involved in manual scavenging) to engage with systems to make it more accountable and seek responsiveness from different governance institutions for the denial of rights of the manual scavengers and Safai Karamcharis.