(This report is part of The Quint's special series HELLHOLE: The Reality of Manual Scavenging in India)
For the past three decades, manual scavenging has been prohibited in India. But why is this casteist, inhumane, and officially illegal practice still practiced?
According to Pragya Akhilesh, secretary of Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union, “The problematic mindset behind the question, ‘Who else will clean our faeces?' is what promotes manual scavenging. The definition itself is underdefined." She told The Quint:
"There is a need to extend the categorisation of manual scavengers. The definition must include domestic cleaners, community toilet cleaners, and sanitation workers in schools because in addition to being sweepers, they also engage in manual scavenging. Many of these are involved in manual disposal of excreta and biohazard waste in hospitals as well."Pragya Akhilesh
By limiting the categorisation and identification of manual scavengers, we have neglected them, said Akhilesh.
According to two surveys conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2013 and 2018, the government estimates that there are 58,000 manual scavengers.
"Undercounting is a Major Problem": Bezwada Wilson
Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), put light on the unfortunate state of affairs, especially the undercounting. He told The Quint, “When we tell the authorities we have a list of 200 manual scavengers, they deny it. They reduce the total number to 20. They present the ‘reality’ of 20 manual scavengers' rehabilitation, suggesting that the practice has been abolished."
“When manual scavengers cease working, they have no food resources. The one-time government relief of Rs 40,000 often arrives after long periods, ranging from six months to eight years. Thus, all this time, they have been forced to do the same work. It might seem like they left it but the reality is that they continue manual scavenging"Bezwada Wilson
300 Killed in Last 5 Years While Cleaning Sewers, Septic Tanks: Govt Data
According to government data, at least 300 people have been killed in the last 5 years while doing hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. But Wilson claimed the conviction rate is low. He explained, “They don’t look at what the crime is. They look at which community the crime has happened.”
“If a Dalit is a victim, the judgment also becomes an ‘untouchable’ judgment. They think Dalits should be happy with a small compensation. They think it is intrinsic to the community. Till the time caste and patriarchy are entrenched in their minds, we can’t expect a judgment from them,” added Wilson.
Akhilesh also mentioned a loophole in the 2013 Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers (PEMSR) Act, which causes several cases to fall outside the Act's purview.
"When three or four manual scavengers are killed in an incident, those attempting to file an FIR are frequently put under pressure. They are told that because they are related to the deceased or are manual scavengers who did not die in the incident and are prima facie witnesses in the case, they should mention that the victims were given safety equipment but refused to wear it — that they made a voluntary entry without protective gear.”Pragya Akhilesh
Wilson also expressed his thoughts on how the rehabilitation of manual scavengers usually involves allotting them sanitation jobs, which he compared to modern-day scavenging. He questioned why rehabilitation is limited to such roles and proposes providing opportunities like higher education or free education for their children. He added, “This way, they can break free from the cycle and lead dignified lives while taking care of their parents.”