Manual Scavenging: A humiliating reality of India

by Manish Kumar 


The phrase “Manual Scavengers” might be new for some but it is a humiliating daily reality for several in India. Manual Scavenging refers to the removal of animal or human waste/excreta (night soil) using brooms, tin plates and baskets from dry latrine and carrying it to disposal grounds some distance away. Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill was presented in the Parliament (it has not been passed yet) with an intention to stop this hazardous job. The bill declares that employing people for manual scavenging and cleaning of septic tanks and sewers will attract a hefty penalty.

Recently Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and IIT Madras jointly conducted a seminar on Manual Scavenging in Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (DoHSS), IIT Madras. Many professors, researchers, activists and scholars had participated in that seminar. A. Narayanan, a social activist who has been working on this issue for last five years said, “We see people going into sewer lines, we sympathise with them”. He highlighted that contractors use liquor to attract people for this work. They use liquor as a trump card for recruitment. This is an exploitative, class based and caste based system which is sub-human, he remarked.  He had asked if any higher caste person was doing this job and even when gloves are given, are they used by everyone.

Dr. Sultan Ismail, a scholar with significant research in this field, however, disagreed that workers don’t wear gloves. In his experience, gloves are not practical and prove insufficient. Surgical gloves get torn in five minutes and other gloves make your hand sweat so much that it is practically impossible to wear them and work. He remarked that we ourselves are responsible for the continuation of this abominable practice of manual scavenging. 

We have to create awareness among people so that uncontrolled garbage, sewage on street, open defecation etc. does not happen. Manual scavengers exist because of this and so creating awareness is the first step to realize our collective responsibility leading to such a degrading practice to exist in the first place. Dr. Ismail had called for eco-friendly toilets where children can defecate without being in fear of left behind closed doors as it happens in houses. He urged IIT and IITians to come out with innovative technology and model for toilets which they can use without fear and where even rain water harvesting can be utilized for cleaning purposes. He ended his talk with some alternative and substitute toilets which can be replaced by present toilets to prevent Manual Scavenging and diseases spreading through it.

To conclude, Manual Scavenging should be prohibited – both legally and in practice – because it is a hazardous and inhuman practice. Such regressive practices only hinder India on its march to becoming a global superpower. Through collective dialogue and action, we must initiate steps to remove this practice from our country and attempt to come up with new ideas and inventions to stop Manual Scavenging, related diseases and the caste based bias against people in the hiring of scavengers.

Manish Kumar is a 4th year student of Integrated MA at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras, India.  

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