Stop Manual Scavenging
In News: With an aim of eliminating human entry into septic tanks and drains for cleaning, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has launched a ‘technology challenge’ seeking suitable solutions from individuals and NGOs.
Background: Three labourers died cleaning a sewage treatment plant in Loni, Ghaziabad. The deaths were allegedly caused by poisonous gas in the plant. Reports suggest that none of them were even aware of the gases, and were without the necessary safety equipment.
- Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) released in 2015, states that there were around 0.18 million manual scavenging households in rural areas.
- A government survey identifies 12,226 manual scavengers in 12 states. Most septic tanks are emptied manually in Indian cities.
- The lack of proper safeguards puts manual scavengers at risk of infections, which are occasionally fatal.
- Statistics show that 80% of India’s sewage cleaners die before they turn 60, after contracting various infectious diseases.
The Technology Challenge:
The initiative is in line with the vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recently expressed a desire for a challenge to promote latest technologies to avoid human intervention in cleaning of sewers and septic tanks in the country.
- Identify technological and business process innovations
- Endorse viable business models suitable for cities of different sizes and geographies, and pilot test shortlisted technologies and solutions in select project cities
- Bridge the gap between innovators or manufacturers and beneficiaries such as urban local bodies and citizens
Loopholes in the Law:
- Manual scavenging was banned in India in 1993. Employing people to the profession carries possible imprisonment penalties for up to one year and fine of 50,000 rupees. Still, demand for scavengers remains high.
- The 2013 Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act aimed to introduce safety measures for manual scavengers and encouraged their rehabilitation. Activists and manual scavengers have since criticized the law on the grounds that it does not strictly ban the practice.
- Manual scavenging also persists due to the continued presence of “insanitary latrines,” where human waste has to be cleaned physically and not by a machine or sewage system. The majority of such latrines are dry latrines, which don’t use water. According to the 2011 Census, there are about 2.6 million dry latrines in India.
- Protective gear like gloves, gas masks and boots are often not provided by employers, in violation of the 2013 law, leading to diseases and even death. There is no proper accountability system in place.
- The 2013 Act allows manual scavenging if the employer provides ‘protective gear’; However, the Act does not define what constitutes ‘protective gear,’ creating a possibility for employers to exploit this provision
Social Exclusion experienced by Manual Scavengers: Both for belonging to a low caste and being in a stigmatized profession
- Denied access to places of worship, public sources of water
- Excluded from cultural events
- High gender pay gap (2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Cleaning Human Waste released”)
Patriarchy made women clean where no one else wants to clean up. Rehabilitation is also more difficult for women as most of them are middle-aged and elderly.
When we look at the practice of manual scavenging in light of the caste hierarchies prevalent it becomes amply evident that manual scavenging has traditionally been relegated to those present at the bottom-most step of this caste ladder. So, even among the Dalits, manual scavengers are one of the lower-most sub-groups, and are treated as such, even by the Dalits who occupy a higher place than them in the caste hierarchy.
The Way Forward:
Government needs to now act with speed, sensitivity and consideration.
Urgent need of the hour – Political Will: The machines to clean sewers and septic tanks are already available globally, but they need to be adapted to Indian conditions, and the government needs to show the political will to actually use the technology on the ground on a large scale. A strong political will is required to reform the system, and rescue the thousands from a life that denies them basic dignity and rights.
Fulfil Present Legal Provisions: Neither contractors nor municipalities are providing the equipment and logistical and medical support mandated by the law. Thus, even as we consider technology solutions, there is a need to fulfil the provisions of the law already there. Otherwise, all the innovation will not result in change on the ground.
Human Rights need to be Respected: India cannot claim to be “clean,” because we have doomed a specific caste to clean our toilets, our garbage and our sewers manually. Some 95% of the people engaged in this degrading practice are Dalits. The National Human Rights Commission has termed manual scavenging as one of the “worst violations” of human rights. The casteist mindset of the Government also needs to go an overhaul.
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan needs to work for the manual scavengers first: The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan hasn’t made things better either as dry latrines are being built under the scheme. Although the campaign encourages building composting toilets, bio-toilets and leach pits, people mostly choose to build toilets with septic tanks and dry pits, which have to be serviced manually.
Book officials failing to enforce manual scavenging law
- Mahatma Gandhi: “Everyone must be his own scavenger.”
- “Open defecation free” not only means that there is no visible faeces in the environment; it also means that every household and public institution uses safe technology to dispose of the same.
- The National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management, 2017, states that employment of manual scavengers is illegal, but it does not suggest mechanical alternatives to unclog septic tanks, drains and sewers.
- Bio-toilets: Bio-digester toilets are designed to convert human waste into gases and manure.
- The zero-waste biodigester technology uses psychrotrophic bacteria like Clostridium and Methanosarcina (these microbes can live in cold or hot climate and feed on waste to survive) to break down human excreta into usable water and gas. Once applied, the bacteria can work for a lifetime.
- Waste from toilets are sent to a giant underground bio-digester tank where anaerobic digestion takes place. Methane gas produced in the tanks can be used for different purposes, including firing up gas stoves and generating electricity while the leftovers (popularly called Humanure or ‘Human manure’) can be used for gardening and farming. It does not have any geographical or temperature limitation and also does away with the need to set up large sewerage networks.
- The technology was originally developed by the Defence Research Development Organization’s (DRDO). The best feature of this toilet is that it totally does away with manual scavenging, is low on maintenance and installation cost and can be adapted to any geo-climatic conditions of the country.
Connecting the Dots:
- “Everyone must be his own scavenger.” Discuss.