I Will Vote For a ‘Swachh Bharat’ Without Manual Scavenging
Citizen journalist Lokesh Bag’s encounter with a manual scavenger in Bhubaneshwar has made him wish for an India free of such an inhuman occupation.
Citizen journalist Lokesh Bag’s encounter with a manual scavenger in Bhubaneshwar has made him wish for an India free of such an inhuman occupation.(Photo Courtesy: Lokesh Bag)

I Will Vote For a ‘Swachh Bharat’ Without Manual Scavenging

Recently, while wandering in the locality around Capital Hospital in Bhubaneshwar, I met a manual scavenger who must be around 25 years old. He too had a dream, but his poverty and belonging to an oppressed caste has reduced him to inhumane standards it seems. He told me his wife works as a librarian in a school for Rs 8,000 per month and they have a daughter who had to leave her studies because they couldn’t afford her education.

Like him, there are many whose lives begin and end with dipping in the pool of fermented human excreta.
Like him, there are many whose lives begin and end with dipping in the pool of fermented human excreta.
(Photo Courtesy: Lokesh Bag)

Like him, there are many whose lives begin and end with dipping in the pool of fermented human excreta. I insisted, but he didn’t mention his name in fear of losing his job.

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For a contractual sanitary worker like him, the day starts with a task of manually clearing any clogged sewer or pit in the area allocated for him. He told me, he gets Rs 5,000 per month, but he hasn’t received his salary for two months in a row. When I asked him about the reasons, he said:

“We work on contract basis, they can remove us at any moment. You will take the information, but we will suffer.”
Manual Scavenger 
There are no fixed working hours for a private worker like him.
There are no fixed working hours for a private worker like him.
(Photo Courtesy: Lokesh Bag)

There are no fixed working hours for a private worker like him. The civic contractor can call him at any time. He was nervous to even talk to me, but I lingered till he came out of the manhole. He was hesitant in the beginning, but eventually, he opened up about his struggles.

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The Well of Death

He told me that he climbs down manholes bare-bodied, without any mask or suit to protect him in the gurgling excreta of people.

The dirt, at times, enters his ears, eyes, and even his mouth.

Every time he enters a sewer, a septic tank or a manhole, he feels it is his last time.

In the evenings, he takes refuge in alcohol to forget about his job.

In the name of safety, all he gets is a so-called safety belt wrapped around his waist and a rope to hang from as he jumps into the manhole, which many in his profession call ‘Maut ka kuan’, ie, the well of death.

There are many toxic gases inside the manhole and no technology is used to test their concentration.
There are many toxic gases inside the manhole and no technology is used to test their concentration.
(Photo Courtesy: Lokesh Bag)

There are many toxic gases inside the manhole and no technology is used to test their concentration. He said there is a mechanised way to suck the dirt out of the manhole, but people prefer the job to be done by a person of the oppressed caste.

“We are like an insect in their eyes, they can use us or kill us any time they want.”
Manual Scavenger 

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I asked if he knows about the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. He denied knowing about any such law and insisted that nothing can change the situation.

Manual scavenging without protective gear is banned in India, but this inhuman practice continues across the country.

The Government of India has not considered the safety and dignity of these people in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan . It is ironic that the government provides money for the families of those who have died during manual scavenging, but it is not interested in at least ensuring the workers’ protection.

The Government of India has not considered the safety and dignity of these people in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
The Government of India has not considered the safety and dignity of these people in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
(Photo Courtesy: Lokesh Bag)

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What About the Role of Government?

There are two important things to note here – the data on manual scavenging and loopholes in the 2013 Act. According to a report in The Indian Express, 53,236 people are involved in manual scavenging in India – a four-fold rise since 2017 alone.

The 2013 law in its definition says those who are working with protective gear will not be considered manual scavengers, which itself contradicts the law. Not only a proper law, but also the will power and cooperative effort from all sections of the society is needed to uproot this evil, inhuman act from our country.

Government authorities at the Centre and state level should focus more on practical awareness and implementation, rather than fooling people with the misleading and unreal data.

This election, as a responsible citizen, I will vote for the candidate who will ensure the eradication of manual scavenging, and rehabilitation of all currently working the occupation.

(The author is a student of agriculture and hails from Odisha.)

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