The viral picture of a manual scavenger’s son attending his father’s funeral during the month of September 2018, reignited the debate and woke us from our slumber about the plight of manual scavengers in our country. Since 2017, 1 person has died every 5 days across the country as analysed by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. Every state across India face tragic deaths of these workers, however, these deaths do not have a record in the government data because, since 2013 manual scavenging is non-existent at least on papers. These unfortunate cases bring forth the hollowness of our prime campaign “Swachh Bharat”. Additionally, it points toward the lack of bureaucratic and political will, and the blindfold.
Though the Government authorities claim of the several successful attempts to eradicate the filthy practise, the farce of such claims compared to the ground realities are uglier and far fetched. As per National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), Telangana reported 1,57, 321 dry latrines but zero manual scavengers, Himachal Pradesh showed 854 dry latrines but no manual scavengers, Chhattisgarh too, recorded 4,391 dry latrines but only 3 workers. Similarly, Karnataka recorded 24,468 dry latrines but only 302 manual scavengers. These facts highlight and reflect that the reality on paper is different from the reality on ground.
Why is the country struggling to eliminate ‘Manual scavenging’?
The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act 2013, defines manual scavenger as an individual employed by a local authority or an agency for manually cleaning, carrying, and disposing human excreta from insanitary latrines. As a matter of fact, the authorities seem utterly confused in defining manual scavenging. It doesn’t recognise septic tank and sewer line cleaners as ‘manual scavengers’. This is unquestionably, a result of sheer ignorance at an institutional level.
The situation with Indian Railways is a disturbing reality, the biggest employer that hires individuals disguised as sweepers on contract, at lowest possible price of Rs 200 per day. This most definitely is the classic example of the government’s double standards. It denies existence of manual scavengers but employs these sweepers to clean the toilets manually. States like Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra had earlier denied the existence of manual scavengers, but an ongoing survey by the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) reveals the presence of manual scavengers in these states as well.
While the country is taking leaps in economic development, the existence of inhuman practise takes us backwards and highlights our failure in ensuring basic human rights. A national level consciousness is urgently needed, followed by strict adherence to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act 2013 by State and the Central govt. alike. Just legislative conformity or changes will not ensure an end to the inhuman practice. The consciousness to eradicate the scavenging has to combine with technological solutions and rehabilitation programmes to offer alternative employment options for a sustenance.
Technological intervention is the way forward
On the occasion of World Toilet Day, this year Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International, launched the ‘Hope Machine’, India’s first sewage cleaning machine. The machine is designed in a way, to inject high pressure into the tunnels and tanks, and can collect waste with a mechanical bucket. Gas-detecting device, high-resolution inspection camera, protective gears and clothes are some effective features that come along with the machine. Such functional technology, if implemented on a larger scale, could gradually address the issue.
Another efficient technological innovation is Bandicoot, developed by a startup Genrobotics. This robot is designed to clean manholes, collect waste and remove clogs. It efficiently mimics the movement of a manual worker. Interestingly, the Bandicoot has four limbs and a bucket system attached to a spider-like extension, and is enabled with Wi-Fi and bluetooth modules. The spider like hand can clean upto 400 manholes in a month. Owing to its successful results in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala govt. is planning to implement this robot in other cities too. The Centre can consider to implement the same in other States as well.
Fixing the ends through CSR interventions
While the implementation of technology will eliminate the need of manual work, the affected workers need to be rehabilitated with proper skill development and employment opportunities. The evident hard task here is, a community that has been involved with the profession for generations, will require confidence and a mindset change, to shift their profession. To help and hand-hold them, the government, public and private organisations together, must take up the onus.
With a right intention, the companies under the CSR ambit may welfare programmes that aim vocational training and employment to these liberated workers. There is a need to identify beneficiaries, initiate awareness campaigns and counselling session around government and private initiatives. This is indeed, the first and crucial step. Most of the scavengers are keen to discontinue and take up alternative jobs but they lack requisite skills to earn a livelihood. Therefore, secondly, it is a prerequisite to ensure training opportunities in easily adaptable occupations like beauty care, sewing, tailoring, driving lessons etc. Micro financing is another way, that can support them in setting up small-scale businesses like grocery shops, cycle repairing shop, tailoring, embroidery shops amongst others.
It is modern India’s greatest shame, that requires immediate action. In our efforts to address the issue, an integrated approach that focuses on behavioural change, legislative reforms, and public and private partnership is the only way out.
Written by Ankita Singh(Sr. Executive – Content )