Oped: CLEANING THE SYSTEM

MANUAL SCAVENGING

How do we fully rehabilitate a people who have been clearing ‘untreated’ human excreta from dry latrines and toilets for generations? Unclogging blocked sewer pipes while breathing noxious fumes? A people who legally cannot be employed in this ‘profession’ according to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers Act 2013.

A still from ‘Kakkoos’, an award-winning investigative documentary on manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu. [Source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/the-camera-exposes-a-dirty-untruth/article17373307.ece]

Going the tech way?
Contrary to popular opinion, technology isn’t a one-stop solution. Installing self-flush cleaning bio-toilets is fine (Only nine trains with a capacity of more than 400 coaches have been fitted with bio-toilets, says a Defence Research and Development Organisation report — another story altogether), but at the final destination, the shit has to be scooped up by human hands — and again, who will be called in to do the dirty job? No prizes for guessing. No prizes for the Centre’s Swacch Bharat campaign either — MORE toilets? Way to reduce the employment of scavengers/ cleaners!

‘Professionalising’ the profession
Providing safety gear, gloves, a shit scooper, a mop/broom, a Government id which will facilitate a salary and a pension, reducing workload; introducing shifts and offering proper training to municipal sanitation workers ahead of entering manholes, will not eradicate the profession, but will legitimize it. What’s wrong with it, you’d argue? Drains cannot be cleared unless you manually enter them. SOMEONE has to do the task. In Sri Lanka, this same task is done by some of the upper castes too — it’s like any other paying job there; not relegated to the Arundathiyar community alone. This reduces the risks associated including loss of life and limb, etc.All highly ideal measures.

Further, one can bring in the benefits the 2013 Act lays down. Free primary school education to the children of manual scavengers (who have been employed for at least a year — an exclusionary clause). Compensate those who have left the inhumane profession with Rs. 40,000. 10 lakh rupees if a manual scavenger in your family is killed.
Stella and Angel, contractual scavengers from Ambatturare not permitted by their children to be seen next to them in the vicinity of their schools. Several studies have documented that school authorities are guilty of calling children of the scavengers from their classes to clean the public toilets in the schools. 
And the compensation money? Measly, they say. It suffices for the payment of school fees. That’s all.

Take them out of the job. Simple?
Next step: successfully rehabilitating former scavengers into alternative employments. On one hand, a group of former female manual scavengers based in Madhya Pradesh created a joint self-help group and are economically empowered. On the other hand, embossing clothes with zardosi embroidery, meant to be done with delicate fingers is both a complete contrast from the kind of work those fingers had to perform formerly, as well as painful because the fingers are unskilled/ unsuited for the current task.

Does rehabilitation mean liberation?
We need to ask this when a self-respecting man like Karthik who has left this ‘hereditary’ job and has been driving for taxi-cab aggregator Uber for the past few years reveals that he can neither drink a glass of tea from a common cup at a stall nor extend his hand in greeting.

Clearly, the stigma and discrimination associated with manual scavenging lingers on beyond rehabilitatory schemes. Notions of ‘purity’ makes sure of that — raising chances of the people returning to those jobs when efforts to secure alternate means of employment fails.

Municipal/daily wage sanitation workers at a Safai Karmachari Andolan meeting in Chennai on March 3, 2016, hoping to get compensation and change their lives for the better.