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A ray of hope for India's manual scavengers

Cautious welcome for government plan to eradicate hazardous practice by August 2021

A ray of hope for India's manual scavengers
A manual scavenger cleans out a latrine by hand. India's government says it will end the degrading and dangerous practice next year. (Photo supplied)

A Christian activist has cautiously welcomed the Indian government’s plan to end the discriminatory and hazardous practice of manual scavenging by August 2021.

Manual scavenging is the practice of removing human excrement from toilets, septic tanks or sewers by hand.  

“For years no government at central or state level has done anything to safeguard the poor people who are engaged in manual scavenging, hence I am a bit confused and skeptical if these new measures will work out,” Bezwada Wilson, a Dalit Christian and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award for his work to eliminate manual scavenging, told UCA News.

“Most of the time the promises are only on paper. The government is not at all interested in helping the Dalits, poor and downtrodden. It does not even count them as citizens of this country. We have laws but who will implement them?”

Wilson, who started Safai Karmachari Andolan (manual scavengers’ movement), said the government is busy with corporates and elite people and has no time to listen to “the cry of the poor people.”

The measures launched last week are part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India initiative) and seek to enforce laws that have banned manual scavenging.

Hardeep Singh Puri, the minister of housing and urban affairs, launched the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge on Nov. 19 to mark World Toilet Day.

Under the new campaign, sewers and septic tanks in 243 cities will have mechanized cleaning and a helpline created to register complaints if manual scavenging is reported. It aims to ensure that no life of any sewer or septic tank cleaner is ever lost again.

Durga Shanker Mishra, a government official, said that terminology would be changed to support the decision to eradicate manual scavenging.

"We have instructed that the word 'manhole' is not to be used anymore and only 'machine-hole' is to be used from now on," he said.

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The government said it would directly transfer funds to sanitation workers, not contractors or municipal corporations, to buy cleaning machines.

"We want the workers to own these machines so that these can be used by the municipalities when there is a requirement," said R. Subrahmanyam, another government official.

Despite stringent provisions in law, manual scavenging continues unabated in India. The practice is driven by caste, class and income divides.

The number of people killed while cleaning sewers and septic tanks has increased over the last few years. Last year saw the highest number of deaths, 110, in the past five years. This was a 61 percent increase from 68 deaths in 2018.

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was meant to end the practice of any form of manual cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling of human waste.

But according to a survey conducted in 18 states, 48,345 manual scavengers had been identified as of Jan. 31, 2020. Uttar Pradesh has the most manual scavengers.

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