By Zoma Itrat Khan ~ Integral University, Lucknow
What does privilege mean? It can be defined as an exceptional right. Advantage, immunity available to a particular person or group/ community.
What is caste? It is a hereditary social standing prescribed to a group of people. What is the correlation between the term privilege and caste? These privileges are enjoyed by the upper caste people who don’t have to climb in people’s shit like few others. According to the Hindu hierarchy of the Varna system- Brahmins occupy the superior most position, followed by Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Outside this hierarchy lies the Dalits. They are often termed as the outcast, and their sole purpose of existence is to serve the above four Varna.
While determining the duties of these Varna, Dalits were given the most dehumanizing work of collecting the excreta (Human waste) and cleaning the dump. Irrespective of development and technology advancement, the word remains the same even in the 21 century – in the age of robots—the poor, uneducated Dalits who clean shit with their own hands. An Estimated 600 sewer workers die every year that is more than 10 times than Indian soldiers killed by terrorists.
Every Dalit is a sanitation worker, but every sanitation worker is not Dalit.
Dalits do this work exclusively because of the casteism and patriarchy system prevailing in India. In India, there are constitutional as well as legislative prohibitions on “untouchability” and” manual scavenging”. Moreover, men and women continue to take part in manually cleaning human excreta from dry toilets (private and public), open defecation sites, septic tanks, utility holes, and sewers. They usually rely upon manual scavenging because of traditional caste-based roles. If any Alternate employment options are available, then the situation is perpetuated by poor implementation of laws and policies prohibiting this practice.
Mumbai is a bustling city of 20 million population, and every day the town provides 2000 million litres of sewage, which is equivalent to 800 Olympic-sized swimming pools and only 30,000 sanitation workers, i.e., one worker for every 66,000 litres of sewage. The only training they need is the ability to not puke. The advanced equipment that drives this intensive work can be found in every household in India – A broom, basket, a thin plate or gloves, and sometimes a pair of gumboots. The hazardous nature of the job leaves workers with health-related problems. It is traditionally a role established by the caste system in India, mainly the Dalit caste, usually from the Balmiki (or Valmiki) or Hela subcaste.
Freedom fighter G. S. Lakshman Iyer banned manual scavenging in 1950 when he was the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality; officially it became the first local body to ban it. Sanitation falls under the State list as per entry 6 of the Indian constitution. Under the parasol, Delhi banned manual scavenging in February 2013 making them the first Indian state to ban it. District magistrates are in charge of ensuring that there are no manual scavengers employed in their district. Within three years of the ruling municipalities, railways and cantonments were required to make sufficient sanitary latrines available. Still, by using Article 252 of the constitution which empowers Parliament to legislate consent of within three years of the ruling municipalities, railways and cantonments were required to make sufficient sanitary latrines available, it also empowers the Parliament to legislate by consent of two or more States and adoption the same by any other States, Government of India has enacted numerous laws. The prolongation of such discriminatory practice is a violation of ILO’s Convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation).
The chief of the United Nations human rights greeted the movement in India in 2013 to expunge manual scavenging.
The Employment of Manual Scavenger and Prohibition on Construction of Dry Latrine Act, 1993
Subsequently, six states moved the resolution to Central Government to form a law, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which was drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the headmen ship of Narasimha Rao government and was passed by Parliament in the year 1993.
This Act subsequently punished the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines (non -flushable) with imprisonment for up to 1 year or a fine of Rs 2,000. No convictions were obtained during the 20 years it was in force.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
Manual Scavenging can be understood as “Manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in a latrine or drain or pit.” This term is mainly generically applied in India. This practice incorporates gathering human excreta and dry latrines with bare hands, brooms, or metal scrapers into woven baskets or buckets. Scavengers thereof carry the same, into the dumping sites, water bodies. Moreover, they collect, carry, or dispose of excreta from sewers, septic tanks, drains, and railway tracks.”
Section 2 (o) defines “sanitary latrine” as a latrine which is not an “insanitary latrine “.
Section 2 (p) -defines the term “septic tank” means a watertight settling tank or chamber, usually located underground, which is used to receive and hold human excreta, allowing it to be decomposed through bacterial activity.
Section 2 (q)-defines the term “sewer” as an underground conduit or pipe for carrying off human excreta, besides other waste matters and drainage waste.
A person falling under the Act, 2013 (included in final the list, section 11 and 12) shall be rehabilitated …. In the following manner –
- “one time, cash assistance”
- “children shall be authorized to scholarship”
- They shall be allotted a residential plot and financial assistance for house construction,”
- Entitled to training in livelihood skills.
- Entitled to subsidy and accommodation loan to one member of the family.
The author believes that now, it is important to note that the Act of 2013 recognizes individuals who clean septic tanks, sewers, and open drains, as “manual scavenger” which is an illegal activity. Furthermore, we want a society where there is no discrimination and no women will be cleaning someone else’s shit.
In words of Bezwada Wilson (Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of the newly illegal ‘dry latrines’ (pit latrines) and the abolition of manual scavenging) he states “in my opinion, at any cost including the emergency, we should not allow a human being to enter. We have to develop a system like that. The apparatus can go, the machine can go, like that we have to develop, the government is not just having will”.
Moreover, the author believes that the Supreme Court judgment that says going inside a utility hole is illegal. The court also stated the precautions that need to be taken before entering a utility hole is contradicting in nature.
No person should enter into the sewer line septic tank that is mentioned, in the next line it says “in case of emergency following precaution should be taken into consideration”. However, an emergency occurs beyond whatever the plans we have, when we have no plan, they can’t claim that it’s an emergency.
According to the census of 2011-18, 657 domiciliary was active in manual scavenging for a livelihood. The total number of households involved in manual scavenging in India estimated: 794,000 households. The state of Maharashtra alone comprises of 63,713with the maximum number of manual scavengers, intertwined with Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, and Karnataka. Manual scavenging still sustains in parts of India without proper sewage systems and safe faecal sludge management practices.
In 2018 approximately there were 5 million “sanitation workers” in India, out of which 50% of them were women. However, not all sanitation workers are manual scavengers.
Indian Railways can be regarded as the biggest wrongdoer, where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually. The situation is being upgraded in 2018 by the addition of on-train treatment systems for toilet waste.
What Makes Manholes, Septic Tanks, and Sewer so Lethal?
The environment under septic tanks and utility holes is callous, lack safety tools and equipment, and the emergency protocol may lead to death. One of the biggest threats in a drain is toxic fumes, noxious gases and vapours, these gases which are often regarded as ‘sewer gasses’. Moreover drains contain plunder of organic matters and when they decompose they produce Hydrogen Sulphide, especially if the environment is warm and the sludge has been festering, hydrogen sulphide is soluble in water and trapped in matters when distrusted, the gas causes nausea, delirium, and convulsion, which can all imperial self-rescue sometimes may cause skin and eye irritation when absorbed by lungs, it cause Pulmonary oedema. If it is present in abundance in the air, it can knock a person out.
The same work in Hong Kong requires 2 years of extensive training, licensing, and a full bodysuit with attached oxygen cylinders.
Caste in India
In Indian life, aspect is regulated by the caste system—a system of the social power structure that delegated to rank groups defined by descent and confined to particular occupations. It often is governed by custom and is enforced socially and economically. Irrespective of the religion practised by an individual, caste is hereditary. A community’s caste delegation has long and a notable impact on the ability of members to control land and other productive resources, establishing broad congruence between caste and class.
Dalits are relegated to the caste hierarchy. They have been traditionally viewed as deplorable and regarded as too menial by higher caste—incorporated with manual scavengers, leather workers, and cobblers. Their caste is acknowledged as socially “polluted” or “untouchable” and is used to justify discriminatory practices. Consequently, in many parts of India, Dalit communities are still denied access to community water sources, by barbers, served tea in separate cups, barred from entering shops, rejected from temples, and often prevented from taking part in community religious or ceremonial functions.
While the Indian constitution and other laws guarantee equal status and rights for all citizens and outlaws untouchability practices, various forms of discrimination perceive. Many Indian leaders have condemned the tenacity of untouchability, i.e., then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who equate caste discrimination to segregation.
Political and human rights movements have broken many caste barriers. Still, caste continues to justify discriminatory, cruel, and dehumanizing treatment inflicted upon millions of Indians—especially in areas of rural India. The caste-designation yet mimics rigid roles and entitlements.
The Indian government has passed laws and adopted policies aimed at reducing caste discrimination, but has done too little to address widespread failure to implement these measures and the role of local government officials in preserve discriminatory practices.
After the enforcement of this Act in the year 2013, according to Bezwada Wilson, this law leaves people “helpless and incapable.” “Before this Act -the district magistrate had weeping power to investigate and solve the cases, but the same does not relay in the prevailing Act. If authorized the public official is unable to perform his duty of recognizing manual scavengers and to rehabilitate them, there is no mechanism to pull them up.”
As the author believes – A manual scavenger who were discharged often face brutal atrocity and violence. Therefore, ensuring protection for these families is pivotal. The Act does not incorporate critical key point of provisions like the rehabilitation of people who were discharged from manual scavenging before this Act.
-  The prohibition of employment as manual scavenger and rehabilitation Act, 2019, Government of India, legislative department, retrieved from http://legislative.gov.in/actsofparliamentfromtheyear/prohibition-employment-manual-scavengers-and-their-rehabilitation-act.
-  Business Standard, Retrieved from https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/inside-lethal-manholes-workers-caught-in-legal-biological-chemical-trap-118062800228_1.html.