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The Curse of Manual Scavenging

Data reveals that there have been over 900 manual scavenger deaths in India, between 1993 and 2020 and over 400 First Information Reports (“FIR”) registered for manual scavenger deaths in India during the same tenure.

It was in my school-going days that I witnessed heaps of black, sludge-like, unbearably stinky substance resting on the footpaths, beside grilled drains, every five to ten meters apart. The most our then innocent mind told us to do was change the track and reach school from the other side of the road. Little did we knew certain people get inside these drains, without any protective gear and remove these sludge-like substances with their bare hands. Little do we acknowledge, that even today, the day when 5 trillion economy is just happening tomorrow and when ache din is just one month away from today, some people still continue to clean the gutters, manholes and storm drains with their bare hands. These people are called manual scavengers.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 (“2013 Act”) defines a manual scavenger as a person engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railways track or in such other spaces or premises.

In the given time, we humans are at an epitome of achievement. Technologies making our life easier every day. Silicon Valley-based companies launching cool gadgets every year and preteenagers waiting for their parents to surprise them on an annual basis. Life is good for us. Though, we very conveniently forget or rather ignore that life is not good for everyone. Someone, somewhere with little or no aspiration left, is getting ready to get inside a storm drain, to clean sludge with their bare hands. What about them? Comes our esteemed governments, throughout time to prove their incompetence on even coming near to outlaw manual scavenging or either engaging technology/equipment in getting the work done.

The ‘sturdy on paper’ 2013 Act, aims at rehabilitating manual scavengers and has provisions of stricter penalties on the violation. However, just a few lines below, the 2013 Act also opportunely conveys that in case of emergency, a person (manual scavengers) may enter (gutters, manholes, and storm drains, etc.) after taking necessary precautions, thereby completely contradicting their very attempt to nullify this despicable job. We elect our government on the basis of their manifestos, and, so badly we have failed in providing justice to manual scavengers dying every year from cleaning detrimental and damning filth and sludge.

The sludge has its share of poisonous history behind its formation. It consists of hazardous industrial wastes, medical wastes, carcinogenic chemicals, decomposed fecal materials, decomposed dead animals, scores of bacteria, including E-Coli, and stagnation leads to the formation of toxic fumes, including hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. On any fine day, the combination of hypoxia and any of these toxic gases are enough to cause death. For manual scavengers not dying of suffocation, undergo prolong anguish suffering from various diseases, including, tuberculosis, malaria, and dengue.

Data reveals that there have been over 900 manual scavenger deaths in India, between 1993 and 2020 and over 400 First Information Reports (“FIR”) registered for manual scavenger deaths in India during the same tenure.

However, to our mere surprise, nothing significant has been done yet.

Not very long ago, people of certain caste were evidently imposed with the job of decontaminating the villages and cleaning other’s fecal remains. Not so civilized ancestors named them as ‘achhut’ or ‘polluted people’. Gone are those days, and we gained tonnes of consciousness and now call them ‘safai karmachari’. However, strikingly similar remains their caste and us lot have never been so conscious or educated to acknowledge that. The majority of it all starts, not with how educated you are, or which part of the city you live in, it always starts with caste, and abolishing the systematic oppression of people of certain caste solves half this problem.

Casting the magic of modern engineering marvels on making drainage systems that do not get clogged and having in place suction machines to clean them on eventual clogging is also a solution. Our country has enough minds and money to solve this problem within a month, having the willingness to do so. Always acknowledge that our collective ignorance is making someone inhale poisonous fumes, eventually killing them, and making someone clean toxic sludge with their bare hands. Always remember.

Further Reads:

We Must Stop Being Witnesses To Manual Scavenging by Vijayasai Reddy, September 08, 2020

Manual Scavengers: Existing In The Shade by Bhitush Luthra, Harsh Yadava, and Shrutaswinee Hazarika, July 1, 2020

Data: Manual Scavenging Exists In India Despite Being Outlawed In 2013 by Sumant Sen, September 25, 2019

Over 20,500 Manual Scavengers Identified In India: Survey, October 2, 2018

How Do Other Countries Clean Their Sewers And Is There Something India Can Learn From Them? by Vijayta Lalwani, September 23, 2018

Manual Scavenging: A Stinking Legacy Of Suffocation And Stigma by Subhojit Goswami, September 11, 2018

Trapped In Manual Scavenging by Ritwika Mitra, August 12, 2018

After 25 Years Of Broken Promises, India is Counting its Manual Scavengers. Again. by Jahnavi Sen June 4, 2018

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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