Mahatma Gandhi said — ‘If I am born again, I would like to be born into a family of manual scavengers to relieve them of the unhealthy, inhuman and hateful practice of carrying night soil’. Indeed, manual scavenging is a social evil of the worst kind that plagues our society. It hurts the very self-esteem of an individual. It is an inhuman practice in which the downtrodden section of the society like Dalits, undertake this as a means of employment, cleaning and disposing human excreta.
Despite India getting Independence in 1947, the social evils like the caste system still exists in the country and has its roots deep in the society. The Rigveda describes the creation of living beings as per the four Varnas (castes): Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Therefore, according to their caste, their occupations were decided. The lower caste people were made to do all the menial jobs which according to the upper caste were considered unsuitable and polluting owing to their high status. All the unclean and unhygienic tasks were forcefully carried out by the Shudras, the “untouchables”, as they had no other choice. Though such practices should have been abolished long ago but unfortunately, they still prevail in our society, one of them being manual scavenging. In order to sustain their lives, they are forced to carry out such filthy tasks.
The Plight of Manual Scavengers
The bitter reality is that the youth of this section are deprived not only of a decent living but also a bright future. Their acceptance in the mainstream working class is very difficult because of the caste discrimination in our society. They are even denied a good education. These jobs give them a daily income to at least survive on. Some of them even get addicted to alcohol so that they can cope with their nauseating work environment. Some are forced into prostitution and trafficking, thus adding to their woes, completely ruining their lives. There have been many incidents in the past where people entered the drains, inhaled toxic fumes of the gases generated there and in the process died in no time. Their safety is always at risk. The news is published in the newspapers, ending up catch some attention for limited time but the impact is never long lasting. It fades away with time. As such news get unnoticed, these people continue to suffer and lead miserable lives.
Governmental Efforts — or Lack Thereof
The unhealthy and wrong practice of manual scavenging, arises from the continuous existence of filthy latrines and a highly unfair caste system, which persists in numerous parts of the nation. The present laws have not shown satisfactory results in eliminating the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging in India. The legal framework for manual scavenging was made in 1993 and afterwards several amendments were made in the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (Manual Scavengers Act), 2013, yet it has not provided any respite to the millions of helpless youths in our nation. At the national level, the Swachh Bharat Mission has more or less failed to tackle this issue comprehensively. In 2014, the budget allocation for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was 47 crores but this value also reduced to Rs. 5.92 crores in 2018–19. In addition to this, the state-level response has also been quite unsteady and does not give an optimistic impression either.
In Kerala, children of the Chakkiliyan community are not considered as Scheduled Caste and therefore, are not given the opportunity to obtain admission through reservations in the state. Similarly, the need of educational facilities for the children of the Sheikh community in Jammu and Kashmir has always been ignored by the local officials. On the other hand, in Haryana, the government has guaranteed manual scavengers insurance of Rs. 10 Lakh. It has also suggested that the workers can elect a contractor who would ensure that all workers can avail the benefits granted by the state. However, the problem here is that the government has officially refused to accept the practice of scavenging in the state.
Eradication of Manual Scavenging is Must
In a situation where the government’s official records don’t even acknowledge the presence of several such individuals, all across India, it becomes difficult to upgrade and rehabilitate this section of the society; although efforts have been made by certain organisations, in the country like Safai Karamchari Andolan, Hasiru Dala, and Jan Sahas India, to bring some reforms, hence liberating them from this age old practice of manual scavenging. Furthermore, many women in MP have been provided with alternate means of living such as fish farming. But such endeavours and phenomenal initiatives remain limited due to lack of support from the general public and poor implementation of rules and regulations. Even today the employment of manual scavengers hast not reduced in many parts of India. As per the recent researches done by various social activists, there is a lack of proper tools, equipments as well as working conditions in India. Though the Government of India has initiated the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and many dry latrines have been replaced with sanitary toilets but manual scavenging still seems uneradicated.
Even after centuries, people in India still do not have the right to choose their occupation. The work done by their forefathers remains imposed upon them because the prevailing caste system does not permit them to change their occupation. Lower caste people continue to face discrimination and are forced into living a pathetic life, full of shame and humiliation. Many a times, media has tried to draw attention of the authorities towards this disrespectful profession but it continues to persist, thus forcing numerous people in the country to lead a life full of shame and indignity.
This article is written by Divyansh Kaul.