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Growing clamour to end a deeply degrading occupation

Even India's outcasts spurn the manual scavengers

A manual scavenger cleans out a latrine by hand A manual scavenger cleans out a latrine by hand
  • ucanews.com reporter, Bhopal
  • India
  • December 20, 2012
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It’s degrading, dirty and outlawed, yet more than 1.3 million dalits – mostly women– are still forced by the caste system into the age-old practice of manual scavenging, leaving them social outcasts.

Manual scavenging is the removal of animal or human excreta from dry latrines and carrying it in baskets to disposal grounds elsewhere.

It often involves having to crawl into the latrines and emptying out the receptacle using the tools of the trade which are typically a broom, a tin plate and a basket. It is a thankless task which earns those who do it a few rupees a  day.

During the rainy season, the contents of the basket drip onto a scavenger's hair, face, clothes and other body parts exposing them to various kinds of infections.

The result is they are looked upon as “untouchable,” even by other dalits.

“I’m not allowed to draw water from the village well or have a bath in the village pond,” said Arati Bai, 38, who recently quit after doing the demeaning work for two decades.

She began scavenging with her mother after she was married at the age of 17.

Bai, who lives in Basiagah, a village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, told ucanews.com that her children are not allowed to sit with other children in school.

Tea shop owners deny her entry into their establishments. She has to remain outside and separate glasses are used to serve tea to her.

“I have to wash the glass afterwards unlike others who just leave their glass when they finish,” Bai said, adding that she is even barred from entering temples to offer prayers.

However, there are a growing number of voices calling for an end to the practice.

The federal government in September introduced further legislation – The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012 – in another bid to curb the practice.

The bill is yet to pass into law.

Similarly, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has also called for an end to manual scavenging.

Pressure is also coming from overseas with the European Parliament last week expressing its deep concern about the “inhuman” practice and urging the Indian government to enforce a ban on it.

Social activist Ashif Shaikh, who has been fighting to eradicate manual scavenging for years, said the practice is a flagrant violation of human rights.

He and activists from 17 NGOs are undertaking a nationwide march against it.

The march, which started on October 30, ends on December 31 and will have covered 200 districts across the country.

“This is treated as a disgraceful occupation even by those who engage them in this practice,” he told ucanews.com as the march passed through Bhopal.

The scavengers belong to the lowermost rung in society and therefore, they end up in the worst situations of vulnerability, marginalization, deprivation and oppression, Shaikh said.

According to government figures, there are 2.6 million dry toilets in the country.

Shaikh said the real number is almost certainly much more.

He said that despite the country having enacted a law prohibiting this occupation in 1993, adherence to the also outlawed caste system and lack of modern sanitation is keeping it alive.

“We want to restore the dignity of manual scavengers and put an end to this age old practice of the caste system,” Shaikh said.

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