Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers (Essay)

Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers (Essay)

Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets. The practice of manual scavenging is linked to India’s caste system where so-called lower castes were expected to perform this job. Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.

In 1993, India banned the employment of people as manual scavengers. In 2013, landmark new legislation in the form of the Manual Scavengers Act was passed which seeks to reinforce this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging in all forms and ensures the rehabilitation of manual scavengers to be identified through a mandatory survey.

Despite progress, manual scavenging persists in India. According to the India Census 2011, there are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. There are 13,14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains, 7,94,390 dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually. Seventy three percent of these are in rural areas and 27 percent are in urban areas.

According to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for more than 72 percent of the insanitary latrines in India.

The Government of India has adopted a two-pronged strategy of eliminating insanitary latrines through demolition and conversion into sanitary latrines, and developing a comprehensive rehabilitation package for manual scavengers through a survey.

However, while manual scavenging for many may have ended as a form of employment, the stigma and discrimination associated with it lingers on, making it difficult for former or liberated manual scavengers to secure alternate livelihoods and raising the fear that people could once again return to manual scavenging in the absence of other opportunities to support their families. Correctly identifying manual scavengers remains a key challenge. A comprehensive rehabilitation package has recently been put together that includes livelihoods and skill development, access to education for children of former manual scavengers and alternate livelihoods.

Legislation in search of dignity

In 1993, the Government of India enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act which prohibited the employment of manual scavengers for manually cleaning dry latrines and also the construction of dry toilets, that is, toilets that do not operate with a flush. It provided for imprisonment of upto a year and a fine. In 2013, this was followed by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which is wider in scope and importantly, acknowledged the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers.

Key features of the Act :

  • Prohibits the construction or maintenance of insanitary toilets
  • Prohibits the engagement or employment of anyone as a manual scavenger
  • Violations could result in a years’ imprisonment or a fine of INR 50,000 or both
  • Prohibits a person from being engaged or employed for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank
  • Offences under the Act are cognizable and non-bailable
  • Calls for a survey of manual scavengers in urban and rural areas within a time bound framework

There remain several challenges in implementing the legislation to ensure that manual scavengers can work and live with dignity. These include :

  • Time frame within which land is to be allotted as part of the rehabilitation package for former manual scavengers as provided for in the 2013 Act
  • Correct and timely identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers
  • Implementation of provision regarding prohibiting ‘hazardous cleaning’ of sewers and septic tanks
  • While the Act is encouraging in that it focuses on the responsibility of officials to ensure its implementation, it does not outline administrative measures beyond conduct rules that can be imposed if officials do not implement the Act

Towards comprehensive rehabilitation

Manual scavengers are at a double disadvantage. They are members of lower castes and as such, face enormous discrimination in society, and second, are disadvantaged because they are manual scavengers who clean human excreta. The challenge of rehabilitation is urgent, and requires a comprehensive approach that moves beyond expanding income generation or providing loans, to focus on various aspects crucial to secure the future of the next generation of liberated manual scavengers.

A comprehensive rehabilitation package could:

  • Ensure discrimination-free, secure and alternate livelihoods by providing skill development and livelihoods training to women, linking them to government employment schemes and entitlements as well as ensuring their land rights. Vocational training linked to employment for young people, and support to liberated manual scavengers in building alternate livelihoods could go a long way in ensuring steady, stable livelihoods for the future.
  • Create a favourable environment through community awareness and sensitization of local administration.
  • Build the capacity of the community to promote rehabilitation efforts and self-reliance and also build leadership in the community with a particular focus on Dalit women

Courtesy: UN India

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