MANUAL SCAVENGING IN INDIA: A SUFFOCATING TRAP

In the rainy season, she started, it is really unpleasant. Water gets mixed with the shit and when we carry it on our heads, it drips down from the baskets on to our clothing, our bodies, our faces. When I return home stinking, I find it hard to eat food sometimes. The smell never goes. And then in summer there is, many a time, no availability of water to wash your hands before eating. It’s difficult to figure out which is worse.”[1] (Account of a worker engaged in Manual Scavenging)

INTRODUCTON

The constitution of India enshrines the idea of civil rights protection and the source of caste and class annihilation i.e., article 17 (abolition of untouchability). Unfortunately, the spirit of article 17, Constitution of India, was followed in principle rather than in practice. A good number of legislations like Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 , Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes Act of 1988 etc., were enacted to ensure an equitable and casteless society, but the condition of the weaker sections has not ameliorated in reality. Even today caste remains a major source of occupational and class division in the society.

Manual scavenging is a profession which has been in existence since the human civilization and its compartmentalization into varna system in India. Considered as a filthy occupation, the job is preformed exclusively by dalits and specifically by a sub-caste of dalits who are viewed even by other dalits sub-castes as doomed and ‘untouchable’. This barbarous practice involving removal of human excrements from dry toilets manually, carrying baskets and excrements to dumping sites for disposal, is perhaps the worst form of human rights violation.

Manual scavenging is incessant in India, despite being labeled popularly as unacceptable and hazardous as a human waste disposal method, despite scientific and technological advancements in the sanitation sphere, and despite the availability economic and sought after alternatives which can efface the twin problems of manual scavenging and safe disposal of human excreta. It passes on from one generation to the other and the culture of acceptance prevailing among the workers also leads to the deprivation of their basic human rights.

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HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Manual scavenging is believed to have started in 1214 in Europe when the first toilets were made for public use.[2] John Harrington invented the water closet in 1596.[3]  In 1870, flush type toilet was invented by S.S. Helior, and it became a common use in the western world. This led to the disuse of other types of toilets in the western nations. Western Europe saw the abandonment of all surface toilets in mid-1950s. Thus, India is perhaps the only country in the world where a particular community is traditionally responsible for sanitation and cleaning jobs by removing the waste products of the society including the human excreta.

CONSTITUTIONAL PROVISIONS

The Constitution of India guaranteed to all citizens basic human rights protected under the Fundamental Rights, Part III.[4] Since the roots of manual scavenging are entrenched in casteist oppression, the practice is a gross violation of Article 14 (The Right to Equality), Article 15 (The Abolition of Caste Discrimination) and Article 17 (The Abolition of Untouchability). Further, the practice also infringes on Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) as the courts have interpreted the same to include the Right to Dignity within its ambit.

The Supreme Court has established human dignity as a fundamental and inalienable step in the journey towards actualizing socio-economic welfare. The practice is also a breach of Article 23 (Prohibition of Traffic in Human Beings and Forced Labor etc.). Manual scavenging is also a violation of Article 42 (Right to Just and Humane Conditions of Work) of the constitution. This practice is also not in consonance with the constitutional safeguards under Article 46 (Promotion of Educational and Economic Interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other Weaker Sections).

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MANUAL SCAVENGING FROM THE PURVIEW OF INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSTRUMENTS

A multitude of United Nations agencies and international human rights bodies have also addressed manual scavenging: UNICEF has approached manual scavenging as a water and sanitation issue; the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken up manual scavenging as a health issue; UNDP has a special task force on the issue of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; UN Women addresses manual scavenging based upon that fact that 95 percent of manual scavengers who clean dry toilets and open defecation are women; and the ILO focuses on ending manual scavenging by supporting implementation of relevant government policies in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat.

COMMITTEES/COMMISSIONS

Besides, many initiatives the Government had constituted many committees/commissions for investigating and recommendations regarding the issue of Manual Scavenging.

  • Colors Committee
  • Kaka Kalelkar Commission
  • Malkani Committee
  • Committee on Customary Rights
  • Pandya Committee
  • Central Advisory Board for Harijan Welfare

NHRC’S TAKE ON THE ISSUE

The National Human Rights Commission of India has been actively pursuing the need to end the degrading practice of manual scavenging in the country. It has taken up this matter with Central and State Governments through a series of personal interventions and meetings. The NHRC has been monitoring this problem with respect to the Adoption of the Employment of Manual Scavengers & Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, carrying out of a survey to identify the number of scavengers and their dependents, imparting of training to the liberated scavengers, rehabilitation under the prescribed funding pattern and making provision in building by-laws not to sanction new building without provision of pour flush latrines. The Commission has found that surveys have not been carried out in most of the states nor have identified scavengers in most cases been properly rehabilitated. At present dry latrines still exist in certain areas of the country.

SUGGESTIONS

In order to bring about a change in their living conditions, a centralized agenda need to be taken up. Provisions for alternative means of livelihood for these communities should be made for their upliftment. Some fields in which they can be employed include the agricultural sector or dairy farming. They can even be encouraged to set up their own independent business startups by providing them loans and subsidies on the required equipment.

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Apart from this, there must be the complete abolition of dry-latrines, by virtue of which the basis for their inhuman treatment will itself be eliminated. Furthermore, education should be imparted by open-minded instructors to the women and children belonging to the families involved in this practice, so that their quality of life is improved. Women can also economically support their families by sewing and doing packaging jobs.

CONCLUSION

The problem of social exclusion from the mainstream society is still being faced by the manual scavengers and their mindset continues to remain unaltered. The exclusion and discriminatory practices against the manual scavengers denies them access not only to economic entitlements but also to civil, political and cultural rights. They are unable to enjoy their primary human rights of free interaction and participation in political and social life of the community due to ‘caste/untouchability based job’ viewpoint of the public at large. The society should change its orthodox mindset and become more sensitized to the needs and aspirations of the oppressed classes.

[1] Thekaekara, Mari Marcel. (1999). Endless Filth: The Saga of the Bhangis. Zed Books Ltd

[2] Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, Sulabh Movement at International Symposium on Public Toilets held in Hong Kong on May 25-27, 1995, available at: http://www.sulabhtoiletmuseum.org/ history-of-toilets/ (last visited on Aug 20, 2020).

[3] The Throne of Sir John Harrington” available at: http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Throne-of-SirJohn-Harrington/ (last visited on Aug 20, 2020).

[4] Commission calls Manual Scavenging as one of the worst violations of human rights. National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) India. https://nhrc.nic.in/press-release/commission-calls-manual-scavenging-one-worst-violations-human-rights

Author: Arshdeep Singh Chahal,
Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab (2nd Year)/ Law Student

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