Wake up, flush it, repeat it. Easy, isn’t it? How much do we think of all that goes down the drain once we’ve flushed it? How much do we care where all the human excreta and everything else flushed into our toilets go and what happens to it ultimately?
Imagine a human working day and night to clean, carry and dispose of the same human excreta with hands bare and safety none, choking themselves in sewers full of filth. I’m pretty sure the very thought will make our noses stretched up with disgust and we will discard the thought right away conveniently just like we discard these people from the society.
These disregarded, often ignored and never respected heroes of the society Manual Scavengers are the people belonging to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India employed with the task of manually cleaning, carrying and handling human excreta from sewers and dry latrines. No advanced technological equipment but brooms and naked hands are what they use putting their lives under a tremendous lot of risk. Exposing themselves to filth and numerous hazards, they work in pitiful conditions for a paltry sum of money.
To say that they survive in pitiful conditions would be an understatement of the struggle these workers undergo daily to ensure they take back few green notes home to earn subsistence for their families. Most of these workers work on a daily wage basis. Thus, employment isn’t guaranteed and sustenance in this profession becomes challenging.
The people working as manual scavengers generally belong to the sub-castes of Dalits- Valmiki or Hela who have been taking up this job due to the hierarchy of their caste in the society. Most often, due to the deep-rooted patriarchy, it is the women who clean dry latrines with almost 90% of sewage workers being women. Employers too, taking advantage of the vulnerability of these poor women, discriminate against them and pay them meagerly.
The plight of these poor workers could be realized from the fact that they put their health vulnerable to sundry health hazards which often end up taking their lives. They are exposed to most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that end up affecting their eyes, skin, limbs and respiratory systems and some times, permanently damaging them. They take up this lowly job knowing that the human excreta and urine they deal with carrying with themselves diseases like Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Cholera among others due to the presence of multitudes of hazardous bacteria like Rotavirus, Norovirus, pinworms et al. More often than not, they succumb to these diseases and thus, many of these sewage workers die sorridly very young. Despite this, they are driven to partake in this job due to their miseries and poor conditions. But the real question that arises is, does the job do even a bit in ameliorating their pathetic state?
Appending to the unhealthy and unhygienic working environment and the meager amount of money, what exacerbates their miseries is the disdainful negligent and irrelevant treatment they receive by the society they serve and live in.
They aren’t just disrespected. Perhaps, mere disrespect would have still made living possible but what happens when you are not accepted as a part of the society and treated inhumanly? This is what a manual scavenger undergoes daily as people around them refuse to accept them as a fellow human. Expecting those people to value the efforts they make daily would be an expectation which would be too much of a luxury for these scavengers to afford. Notwithstanding untouchability having been abolished decades ago, these workers are still treated like one. People continue to exempt themselves from coming close to them. Vitiating the picture further, common people ridicule them for doing a work which is helping the country go closer to its goal of attaining cleanliness every single day.
It won’t be completely true to state that no action has been taken yet to address the issues dealt by these manual scavengers. But how much did any law prove to be prudent still remains a crucial question to ask.
Manual scavenging as a profession was abolished way back in 1993. 2013 saw the enforcement of ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act’. Under the act, no authority or person was allowed to employ a manual scavenger and existing workers were promised rehabilitation. Construction of insanitary latrines was prohibited and usage of safety gear became mandatory when human intervention in sewage cleanliness was unavoidable.
Despite all of this, manual scavenging continues to thrive. One of the major reasons for its continued prevalence is the continued presence of dry insanitary latrines which require physical cleaning. Even if the workers wish to leave their profession, the stigma which has gotten attached to them over the years continues to make their lives miserable as nobody prefers hiring them. Due to their low status in the society, their voices are suppressed and they continue living in those dark murky dungeons which are no lesser than black coffins.
The need of the hour is to make these workers aware and educated of their rights. An upgradation of their skills would help them take up a job elsewhere with the proper working condition and hospitable environment.
We as the people will have a major role to play in the betterment of this disadvantaged section of the society. Recognizing their efforts and treating them with utmost respect and humility will lead the road ahead to a better future. It is our collective responsibility to bring these manual scavengers out of this death hole and provide them a respectful place in the society so that they become able to move on from their incumbent dark present.
Until any such firm action is taken, these heroes in disguise will continue riding on their brooms making lives better for the people around and helping the nation in a greater good without any recognition of the effort and struggle they put in.
These unsung heroes carry loads of our filth over their backs and shoulders, they risk their lives and endanger the very future of their parents, wives, and children, and they do it for us all.
Thus, they have been fending and sacrificing for us for long. It’s time we return the favor.