Manual scavenging still exists
The acts they perform are certainly cringe worthy, washing and lifting human excreta, immersing neck deep in cess pools and open drains to clear them. This the worst menial job if there is one and if there is a chance, they will certainly leave the profession, which they have been carrying as heirloom (read burden) for good.
The acts they perform are certainly cringe worthy, washing and lifting human excreta, immersing neck deep in cess pools and open drains to clear them. This the worst menial job if there is one and if there is a chance, they will certainly leave the profession, which they have been carrying as heirloom (read burden) for good. Sadly, even a couple of years after the manual scavenging abolition bill is passed, the age-old inhuman practice still continues.
According to a RTI report, the year 2014 alone saw 11 manual scavenging-related deaths in Telangana, speaks volumes about the implementation of the act. In a recent statement issued by the Department of Social Justice, Government of India, it was reported that there were 89 registered manual scavengers in urban areas of the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, with the details of scavengers in rural areas unaccounted for.
Lawyer Greeshma Rai, who works for the cause of the Safai Karamcharis, argues that the numbers are grossly understated. The numbers are way too low to be true. What about tens of unregistered Karamcharis that are in Hyderabad?” she adds. “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2013, was aimed at amending and replacing the existing Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, had remained as a dead letter.
The Bill prohibits the employment of scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and the construction of insanitary latrines. But the Bill’s implementation has been on the backburner,” points out Bezawada Wilson, national convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan. Post the enactment of the bill, government organisations and firms that used to employ Safai Karamcharis, terminated the employment category. But, that doesn’t mean the practice has stopped; in fact the Karamcharis are contracted to a third party, and the firms conveniently outsourced the related works to these parties.
“Post the bill, we have stopped hiring Karamcharis, infact the hiring was stopped way before the bill was tabled in the parliament. We outsource the cleaning of toilets and track works to third parties,” informed a spokesperson with the South Central Railway. A spokesperson with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation also echoed the same.
However, Greeshma Rai points out that the practice is still in the open and the people who once worked under the rolls of these are now contracted out to third parties. “The act is in place and it is the responsibility of the respective state governments to ensure the implementation. But, the state is brahminical in nature and is indifferent to backward castes. Why only people from one particular community and a few basthis are chosen to perform these menial jobs,” Rai questions. She quips that the existence of the Safai Karamcharis indicates institutionalised casteism.
Plight of karamcharis
With hordes of people waiting for work, the primary school at Lingajiguda, Saroornagar, Hyderabad, looks like a typical ‘Coolie Adda’ (place one can find daily wage labour), but there is lot more to the basthi than meets the eye. The basthi is the place contractors flock to if they need a manual scavenger and they get people, who reluctantly work. There are about 30 families in the basthi and close to 10 families reluctantly do the job.
A couple of years ago, three men from the basthi, Chandrasekhar, Yadaiah and Madhu died while cleaning a drain and the deaths sparked outrage. Speaking to The Hans India, Sri Latha, widow of Chandrasekhar, narrates the plight of the karamchari. “My husband was an auto driver and my mother-in-law was employed with the corporation as a public health (PH) worker. As my mother-in-law was sick, my husband used to do her duties fearing that absenteeism would mean that she would be removed from the job as her health was deteriorating, he ended up taking her job on a day-to-day basis.
Initially, he was used as a PH worker and six eeks later he was asked to the scavenging works and whenever he refused, he was threatened with removal from the job. And six months later, the same job cost his life,” says teary-eyed Sri Latha, who is now a contract GHMC employee.
Mallaiah, who has been intermittently working as a Safai Karamchari, for the past four decades informs that he has been reluctantly doing it. “I started as a adda coolie and got into scavenging when I couldn’t find coolie work, and close to forty years passed by. I have complaints and I don’t lodge; I have mouths to feed and if it pays me money, I will,” adds slightly inebriated Mallaiah.
If one is under impression that a Karamchari is paid more for the scavenging job, he is wrong. According to Jangaiah, who is working as an on and off Karamchari, “We are not paid a penny more for the scavenging job, it is the same if the job is given by corporation. They don’t provide us with any protective clothing. It is a stinking job and if we aren’t inebriated, we can’t get in to clean. Earlier people used to come to us to get their tanks cleaned and they used to pay whatever we demanded, of late they are going for septicleans.” The contract workers affiliated to GHMC are earlier paid only Rs 6,700 per month, which was recently increased to Rs 11,000.
A family ordeal
If cleaning is an ordeal for the Karamchari, then post cleaning scenarios affect the entire family. The inebriation and the stinking working condition often makes the man to lose his balance and many a time hell breaks loose in the family, with women being subjected to domestic abuse. Health of course is a paramount concern as the Karamcharis are in perpetual dehydrated state. According to Dr Umakant Nayak of Apollo Hospitals, “Cholera and Typhoid apart, the Karamchari is prone to parasitic infection and will even become a carrier of such infections.
The skin of the Karamcharis will contain fomites that are easily transmitted. It’s not only the Karamchari but the entire family is affected.” Activists and members of the Safai Karamchari Andolan have repeatedly ask one question: “why manual scavenging when modern equipment and machines are available.” The question is yet found answers despite there are solutions globally.