In 1993, the Government of India took the first step forward towards eliminating the inhuman work of cleaning dry latrines by manually scooping up human excreta. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was narrowly defined to cover workers cleaning such dry or insanitary latrines. However, as this was a state subject, states such as West Bengal, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh, were in denial of the problem and refused to adopt the 1993 Act1. Public corporations, such as the Indian Railways, continued to employ manual scavengers to clean train tracks. In fact, since 1993, no cases have been filed against hiring manual scavengers. It took 20 years of inaction before the Government of India passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers2 and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, with a broader mandate and focus on rehabilitation and human dignity of the workers. This was as a result of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, SKA, (Sanitation Workers’ Campaign) in the Supreme Court of India in 2000.  

Extent of the Problem and Citizen Action 

Deeply caste-based and discriminatory practice of manual scavenging is responsible for one person dying every fifth day3. In 2015, SKA started a 125-day campaign, ‘Stop Killing Us’4, to bring the Government’s attention to the urgency of the issue and stir the nation’s conscience.5 The campaign’s messaging reached out to 500 districts in 30 states6 via a bus yatra (journey), where stories of scavengers and their realities were documented7. The campaign started on 10th December2015 – International Human Rights Day. Covering 35,000 kilometres, the campaign engaged marginalised communities of manual scavengers and sewage workers across India. In some places, SKA workers and volunteers mobilised people for conducting community-level meetings during late evenings and night8. During public meetings SKA workers raised awareness amongst community members on the rights of sanitation workers and the various laws and government-sponsored rehabilitation schemes in place. In some places communities got together and raised slogans and took out small rallies. On the 100th day of the Yatra, a delegation comprising of Members of Parliament, civil society activists and SKA representatives met the President of India with an appeal letter, narrating voices from the ground and urging immediate action to end heinous practice.9 During this period, a wide cross-section of people and groups extended their support for the campaign. Sixty-five well-known judges, scientists, historians, filmmakers and activists expressed their solidarity with SKA’s demands10. The yatra ended on 13 April 2016, which was B.R. Ambedkar’s 125th birth Anniversary, when a big public meeting was organized, which was attended by hundreds of Safai Karamcharis, activists and supporters.  

Women in the Forefront.  

SKA works on three fronts: Firstly, by organising the community to give up the Manual Scavenging occupation; secondly, through public protests and agitations to aimed at effective implementation of the Act and the rules therein; and thirdly, by working with civil society actors and activists to build public opinion around it. 

In many of the protests and agitations, women took the lead. After the 1993 Act was passed, for five consecutive years SKA, presented memorandums to District Collectors to carry out surveys of dry latrines and urged them todemolish or convert them. When women approached District Collectors in many districts, they were not heard and further demeaned through victim blaming—that it was their choice to continue working as manual scavengers, despite the options offered by the government authorities. This accusation resulted in women protesting in front of the Collector’s office, by burning their baskets and brooms11 and questioning the government for alternate employment plan. In another incident, many of the state governments denied the existence of dry latrines in their respective states and filed false affidavits. To refute this claim, women took the lead and went ahead to demolish the latrines. In face of questioning the Collectors and the police, women manual scavengers displayed the government’s affidavits filed in the court– if there are no toilets, how can they be demolished?  

Recent incidents that have caught the public eye include– the deaths of seven people who were maintaining a Gujarat hotel’s sewage treatment plant (2019) and a Delhi-based worker who died from noxious fumes (2018) while cleaning a municipal sewer with his bare hands. Hundreds of protestors gathered in 2018 in Delhi to protest, by raising the issue of continued death of workers and delay in compensations12. In one of the cases, it even led to a crowdfunding that raised a substantial amount of funds for a worker’s family who did not even have money to carry out the cremation ceremony13.  

Companies Continue to Pass the Blame. 

Even the current description of manual scavengers under the 2013 Act is not without loopholes. By restricting manual scavenging to ‘a person engaged or employed to clean human excreta without the use of devices and protective gear as notified by Central Government’, the Act fails to include sanitation workers, especially when informal work through casual employment via contractors has become the accepted norm. This means that casual workers, since they’re not on official rolls, are not covered in the above definition, and thus, agencies can continue the arrangement with impunity. These workers climb down and enter the sewers, hardly ever with proper protective gear, when blockages arise and are overcome by the deadly combination of harmful toxic gases.

Some recourse was provided by the Supreme Court of India, which in its 2014 Judgement14 stated that “Sewer deaths—entering sewer lines without safety gear should be made a crime even in emergency situations. For each such death, compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased15 Despite that, in approximately 80 percent of such deaths, families of the deceased were yet to receive compensation,16 states Bezwada Wilson, renowned activist and voice behind SKA. 

Private companies and local authorities both plead their innocence by stating that the task was given to a contractor. They claim that it is the responsibility of the contractors to protective gear to the workers who ‘voluntarily’ clean the sewers, septic tanks and sewage treatment plants. Contractors, on the other hand, pry on the poverty and vulnerability of workers who are from the most marginalized section of Indian society and thus are able to bypass all safety requirements17. The complexities of the criminal justice system in India18 and the lack of workers’ official employment status19 enables the inhuman practice that continues unabated.  

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