In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to eradicate manual scavenging in India by 2019. On June 15, 2019, four manual scavengers died in his home state, Gujarat. Another two died in Uttar Pradesh. Manual scavenging is defined by the United Nations as, “The practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers.” The definition has several loopholes as it only includes a section of sanitation workers, conveniently leaving out waste treatment plant workers, community and public toilet cleaners and drain cleaners.
A law unheard
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act banned the employment of manual scavengers 26 years ago. Yet, according to the Census of 2011, there were as many as 7,94,000 cases of manual scavenging in India. It is estimated that there was one manual scavenging death in every five days since 2017.
In the age of Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat, it is an irony that while the government campaigns for private toilets for women, a vast majority of the manual scavengers are women. Apart from being a gender issue, manual scavenging is also a caste issue. Most of these workers are Dalits.
There is a lack of proper tools. They use their hands or brooms without gloves to clean human excreta and are exposed to several severe illnesses. Doctor Paulami Roychowdhury told BE, “Manual scavengers are exposed to respiratory and skin problems due to exposure to harmful gases like methane and hydrogen sulphide. They are also at the risk of osteoarthritis, intervertebral disc herniation and prolapse as they have to work in extremely confined spaces where body movement is restricted. They are also likely to develop cardiac problems as they have to work in a low oxygenated environment.”
Vimal Kumar, founder of Movement for Scavenger Community told BE, “The full pressure of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ is on the sweepers and they have to work extra hours with less salary now. Almost every day someone dies in the sewage of septic tanks.”
Way out: technology?
One way out is using technology instead of manual labour. Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) is trying to provide an alternative path. Amit Kumar Roy, Director General, Department of Sewerage Drainage, Kolkata Municipal Corporation informed BE, “Manual Scavengers are not employed by KMC anymore. We have machines to do the job. Some septic tanks in the added areas of Kolkata are however, operated by contractual workers who employ manual scavengers.”
KMC owns 70 manhole desilting machines, 30 power bucket machines, 29 gully pit machines and 14 jetting cum suction machines for this purpose. However, the machines often fail at the task due to blockages in manholes. Clogged plastic, sanitary napkins and human hair has to be removed by hand before the machines can proceed. To get rid of this problem, in February 2018, India’s first manhole-cleaning-robot was implemented but it is not really used widely.
Dr. Soumen Sen, Principal Scientist at School of Mechatronics and Robotics, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur, informed BE, “Not all robots can be used in these tasks. There are bends in the pipelines that need special censors and algorithms to be used. For example, special robots have to be built for each manhole. However, such technology is highly costly and cannot replace the existing cheap manual labour.”
Changes come from within
Kumar informed BE, “I believe that the change will come from within, not from the corrupt and difficult-to-access rehabilitation schemes. We need more awareness and education in the community and people should understand the real meaning of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.”
Rehabilitation schemes have been in place but as of 2017, the government had released very few funds. According to information released under Right to Information (RTI) Act, no funds have been released for rehabilitation of manual scavengers by the Modi government since 2014. Relocation of such workers in other professions has also been very poor.