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Eradicating manual scavenging requires multi-pronged strategy, a nationwide campaign

Kaushal Khatri* 

Manual scavenging, the practice of manually cleaning and removing human excreta from dry latrines and sewers, has been an unfortunate reality in India for centuries. This dehumanizing practice persists despite being outlawed in 1993 under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act.
The majority of manual scavengers are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung of India's caste hierarchy. They are compelled by their economic and social status to take up this hazardous and degrading occupation. Estimates suggest there are still hundreds of thousands of manual scavengers across the country, over 90% of whom are Dalit women.
The persistence of manual scavenging is a testament to the deep-rooted caste discrimination in Indian society. Caste determines social status and limits access to resources, education, and employment opportunities. Dalits have been forced into menial occupations like manual scavenging due to systemic oppression over centuries. Many manual scavenging jobs are passed down through generations, trapping entire families in this cycle of poverty and indignity.
Manual scavengers have to physically enter sewers and septic tanks to clear blockages and clean excreta using rudimentary tools and often without protective gear. This exposes them to harmful gases, human waste, injuries from broken glass and needles, and a constant risk of asphyxiation. A shocking 500-600 manual scavengers reportedly die every year from suffocation while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
Despite the efforts of activists and nonprofit organizations, manual scavenging continues due to administrative apathy and a lack of rehabilitation for scavengers. The 1993 Act prohibited the employment of manual scavengers by prescribing penalties for violation. However, the law has failed to eradicate the practice as many scavengers are unaware of their rights or afraid to lose their livelihood.
State governments have been slow to identify and rehabilitate manual scavengers. The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers launched in 2007, aims to provide alternative livelihoods through skill development and financial assistance. However, a 2011 government survey found over 26,000 manual scavengers across India had not received any assistance.
In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed to reinforce the previous law and expand rehabilitation measures. State governments are required to survey and identify manual scavengers for providing skill training, financial aid, and public employment. However, the implementation has been inadequate.
In 2017, a landmark judgement by the Supreme Court directed states to fully implement welfare measures and take proactive steps to eliminate manual scavenging. The court criticized government authorities' indifferent attitude and failure to stop manual scavenging. Nonetheless, ending this abhorrent practice requires a collaborative effort between multiple stakeholders at all levels.
Eradicating manual scavenging requires a multi-pronged strategy -- a nationwide awareness campaign to make people aware of the inhumanity of this practice and the rights of scavengers; strict enforcement of existing laws and monitoring of sewage treatment systems to employ only mechanical cleaning; and, most importantly, providing alternate dignified employment for scavengers through coaching, vocational training, easy loans, and subsidies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the risks associated with manual scavenging. States must ensure proper protective equipment for scavengers handling medical and hazardous waste and rehabilitate them on priority. Dalit rights organizations have a major role to play in organizing, empowering, and demanding justice for scavengers.
Ending manual scavenging for good requires laws and government programs, and a radical social transformation. The caste system that deems fellow humans "untouchable" based on their birth has no place in a modern democracy. India cannot become a global power clinging to primitive and brutal customs like manual scavenging. As a society, we need to introspect and recognize that manual scavengers' human rights and dignity matter. It is imperative that we break the cycle by expanding access to education, resources, and opportunities. Only then can we build a just, equitable, and inclusive society.
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*Student of IIM Ahmedabad

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