Plight of Manual Scavengers

With the help of most basic tools like buckets, brooms and baskets they manually clean, carry, dispose and handle human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. Since centuries, one particular community is performing this job and they are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in our country.

India may be the world’s largest democracy and has recorded impressive growth economically, but disposal of waste still remains a massive problem. India struggles to cleanly dispose of its waste, its drinking water contaminated by garbage that has entered the waterways. And we talk about infrastructure, technology and modern India when truth is that manual scavenging still persists in India. There are more than 2.5 million dry latrines in the country and more than 1 million toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains and more than 0.5 million dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually. The majority of these are in rural areas or slums in metros.

Manual scavengers collect human waste on a daily basis, load it into cane baskets or metal troughs and carry it away on their heads for disposal at the outskirts of the settlement. One recent survey suggested that more than 150 thousand people are engaged in manual scavenging for a living.

And those who dirty their hands and the whole body lead a wretched life full of massive social discrimination apart from huge risk to their health.

Apart from the social atrocities that these workers face, they are exposed to certain health problems by virtue of their occupation. These health hazards include exposure to harmful gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide, cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis changes and intervertebral disc herniation, infections like TB, hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters.

Sewerage infrastructure in India is poor and inadequate to handle more than 38 billion litres of sewage every day that is generated by major cities and towns. Where sewers exist, they often leak or overflow. Instead of being cleaned every few years, septic tanks are left to accumulate faecal sludge that percolates into groundwater. We need to think about the apocalyptic kind of situation in India as to what would happen if these real heroes (manual scavengers) would not have been cleaning these sewers manually which otherwise could not be cleaned in view of the dilapidated sewerage system and absence of modern equipment and technology for the same.

A time-phased comprehensive rehabilitation package on the below-mentioned parameters should be crafted and implemented for real heroes who have suffered so much for centuries:

  • Modernisation of the sewerage system and construction of toilets with flush connections to drains throughout India.
  • Ensuring discrimination-free, secure and alternate livelihoods by providing skill development and livelihoods training, linking them to government employment schemes and ensuring their land rights.
  • Create a favourable environment through community awareness.
  • Access to education for children of former manual scavengers and alternate livelihoods.

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