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Manual Scavenging: A Social Hindrance To Development

"If anyone in the society is fighting for their basic human rights, then that society was never free."

India is the world's largest democracy, where we hear news about developments and growth in different sectors now and then. We started from temporary roads and today we have grown to the level of constructing 12 lane highways, quite a development indeed. Perhaps, an inhumane practice like manual scavenging did not matter to any of the governments and will not matter to the coming many because let's be honest! Manual scavengers do not matter and nor do their pain and struggles.

They are not a topic that can gain votes from the governments and fulfil their political needs, but if the foundation of this nation is based on equality and freedom as declared by the preamble, then the very prevalence of manual scavenging is a matter of national shame and failure.

Imagine, standing between tons of human excreta or in a manhole, this very thought brings a disgusting expression on our faces, now imagine, doing this work daily as a source of livelihood, Sickening and pathetic, are the words which come in the mind. Now, what if I tell you that around 15 lakh people are involved as manual scavengers in India, will you still consider this country as developing?

Manual scavenging means, "storage, transfer, transportation, collection, separation, treatment, disposal and handling of social waste and excreta manually." In India, such service is required mainly to clean the dry latrines, manholes, and drains. Further, this practice is mainly driven by evils like casteism and Patriarchy. In earlier times, people involved in this work were called the "untouchables" or the people who should not be touched.

They were considered to be the lowest in the varna system and were often disdained. Even today, not much has changed, Panchayats and municipalities look for people belonging to the scheduled classes or the Dalits to be appointed as Manual Scavengers. As the saying goes, not every Dalit is a scavenger, but every scavenger is a Dalit.

It seems like Untouchability was banned under Article 17 of the Indian constitution, but unfortunately, it is not banned from the minds of society. Another, regretful factor of this job is that while men are paid, a women scavenger is denied any kind of wage and is expected to beg for grains and leftover food from the houses, she is employed in. This situation is worse in villages, where women scavengers are not allowed to even show their faces or make any sound while traveling and cleaning the dry latrines. It's funny, how we call these people filthy when we are the ones who are creating the filth.

Health Hazards:

Manual scavenging is not just an inhumane practice, but it is also a risky job. Studies show that most people indulged in this work die from various diseases. The reason behind the health hazards of this job is working conditions.

Some of the health issues which a scavenger can face are as follows:

  • As there is direct exposure to harmful gases like methane, Hydrogen and Sulphide, there is a high risk for cardiovascular diseases
  • There can be various skin problems for the people involved in this job.
  • They are highly vulnerable to diseases like hepatitis, leptospirosis, helicobacter, respiratory system problems, and altered pulmonary function parameters.
  • There is a high risk of TB, Breast malignant growth, campylobacter contamination, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, hand, foot, and mouth sickness, hepatitis A, meningitis (viral), rotavirus disease, salmonella disease, shigella contamination, thrush, viral gastroenteritis, worms, and yersiniosis.
  • Sewage laborers ordinarily have had cuts, wounds, irritation in eyes and related medical issues.
  • They are highly vulnerable to Helicobacter pylori infection that causes gastric cancer.

Environmental Hazards:

Further, this practice is harmful to the environment as well. The very prevalence of Dry Latrines signifies a lack of sanitation structures. It leads to various health issues as well as environmental problems.

Some of the environmental concerns are as follows:

  • Waste disposal is an essential part of maintaining sanitation and cleanliness in the environment. Studies show that manual scavenging is the poorest form of waste disposal. It further leads to water and air pollution.
  • Dry toilets are another cause of concern, places where groundwater is available extensively, people use simple pits toilets as they are cheaper and this practice can lead to pollution of groundwater from the various pollutants from the excreta stored.
  • Human waste leads to an imbalance in the food pyramid of the place it is dumped.
  • Water pollution from this practice can further lead to various water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea.

Laws related to manual scavenging in India

Now that we are familiar with the meaning of manual scavenging and the status quo, the next question which comes in the mind is "Are there no legislations related to it?". So, since the very beginning, various legislation was passed against this inhumane practice.

The major ones are as follows:
  • The Employment of Manual Scavengers and construction of dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993
  • Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013
  • Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)
  • National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK)
  • National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
The supreme court of India in the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India abolished manual scavenging as a profession. But, even today, there are around 1.2 million manual scavengers, but only 43,797 are registered. Even though the employment of manual scavengers was banned in 1993, the municipalities, panchayats, and municipal corporations continue to hire people for this work. This is a classic example of the mismanagement between the making of laws and the implementation of laws.

There are cases in which people who refused to do this were socially excluded and not given any other job. People were threatened to return as scavengers and authorities ignored these atrocities and did not indulge in the proper rehabilitation of such people, especially in rural areas. This indeed is a very saddening situation and it forces me to think how brutal and sadistic our society is as a whole.

In my opinion, Manual scavenging does not have a place in any free and liberal society. It is not a source of livelihood but a way of punishing people for who they are. It's been more than 70 years since we gained independence, and thus it is vital to get rid of this bestial practice. What is required today, is a complete ban on this practice and proper rehabilitation of such people, but more than legislation, society needs to change its outlook toward this occupation and end the social stigma around it.

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