Dalit March

mk gandhi

Dalit Arts & Culture

Manual Scavenging

Manual scavenging is a caste-based and hereditary occupation for Dalits that is predominantly linked with forced labour. It is estimated that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging - a term used to describe the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets, lined with sacking, carried on the head. Manual scavengers are condemned to live and work in most dehumanising conditions. Cleaning public/private latrines, sewer systems, and septic tanks, they work amidst excruciating filth and stench. Carrying the refuse to disposal grounds merely adds to their woes as they are generally compelled to carry it refuse as head load. It is insignificant to point out that these working conditions make them vulnerable to serious health hazards exposing them to viral and bacterial infections.

Manual scavengers earn as little as one rupee a day. A historic Supreme Court Ruling in May 2009 may help bring an end to this abhorrent practice in India. The Court held Government appointed District Collectors responsible for not eradicating the demeaning and hazardous practice.

Dalit scavengers are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination related to their caste and occupational status, and are thus forced to remain scavengers. They are paid less than minimum wages and are often forced to borrow money from upper-caste neighbors in order to survive and consequently they end up maintaining the relationship of bondage.

Apart from the de-humanizing and degrading nature of the work, scavengers are employed at highly exploitative wages. Those working for the municipalities seldom earn more than 40-50 Rupees a day. The enactment of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 has effectively worsened their situation. The Act prohibits municipalities to hire scavengers as permanent workers and therefore and they take recourse to contracting out all the scavenging work. These private contractors have been seldom found to pay stipulated minimum wages to their workers.

In sum, the scavengers have been pushed out of the religious boundaries by virtue of their 'untouchability', are denied rights whether scriptural, religious or social and are placed on the margins of the society, necessary for its survival but unwelcome to be a part of it. The predicament of the Balmikis is a classic case of subversion of logic making the manual scavenger who cleans and disposes waste (including human and animal excreta) by others becomes ritual 'polluter' condemned to remain on the fringes of society. The condition of those employed privately is even worse. All they get for this demeaning job is left over food as well as a meager 20-30 Rupees per month per house.

As of today manual scavenging continues to haunt the prospects of the 'developed country within 2020' projection of India. Caste based discrimination; corruption and government neglect have contributed a large share to continue the 'status' of manual scavengers unchanged in India. India has a long way to go to clear its image as one of the societies practicing the worst forms of discrimination conceived by the human race. Yet, the urge required to bring about that change is not yet visible in the Indian polity.

Campaigning to stop manual scavenging by 2010*

In 2007, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee of Experts urged the Government of India to, “take decisive action to eradicate manual scavenging and to report on nation and state-wide action taken to put an end to this practice and on the progress made in the identification, liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers." This same year, the ‘Liberation movement of those employed as scavengers’ (Safari Karamchari Andolan-SKA) launched an international campaign - ‘Action 2010’ demanding an end to manual scavenging by the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, in Delhi. The logo of the Commonwealth Games is ‘Humanity, Equality, Destiny’, all terms that the Indian Government fails to live up to for as long as caste discrimination, including manual scavenging, continues to be practised in the country.

DSN-UK’s FOUL PLAY campaign was launched in solidarity with the SKA and makes a number of recommendations to the Indian and the UK Governments, as well as the Commonwealth Secretariat which they are expected to fulfil before hosting the 2010 games. DSN-UK supports SKA in its demands including the release of over Rs. 800 crores for the rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. The campaign briefing can be read on the Dalit Solidarity Network UK (www.dsnuk.org) website, working in conjunction with the SKA to realize these campaign goals.

*This campaign has now been extended 6 months into 2011

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why is manual scavenging considered a derogatory form of labour?
  2. Discuss why despite having a law against the practice, manual scavenging continues in countries like India.
  3. What is the link between a non-functioning justice system and the prevention of social evils?