Updated: December 02, 2015 02:23 PM GMT
Lakshmi, who goes by one name, says manual scavengers find it hard to make ends meet and are exposed to serious health hazards. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)
A broom, wastebasket and an iron plate — Rameshwari Devi’s life revolves around these three things for her only source of income.
Rameshwari, a manual scavenger, rises early each morning to clean waste from people’s latrines.
Along with 30 other women from her locality in northern Uttar Pradesh state's Ghaziabad district, she is forced to do this degrading job that she inherited from her forebears.
Even though the Indian government passed a bill in 2013 banning manual scavenging, over 1.3 million women still do this work, which requires removing human or animal excreta with a broom and carrying it away in a basket.
“Nobody wants this job but we have no other source of income. Our men drink and gamble and we are left to earn. As we are not accepted in mainstream society, this is the only thing we can do,” Rameshwari told ucanews.com.
Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swach Bharat (clean India) campaign and promised to end open-air defecation by constructing toilets across the country, little has changed.
Lakshmi, who goes by one name, told ucanews.com that manual scavengers find it hard to make ends meet as they only earn 20 or 30 rupees (less than 50 US cents) plus a piece of bread from each house that they clean.
“We want to change jobs but, as long as people have these dry latrines, our work remains the same,” she said.
Lakshmi said that the work also leads to various health problems, including eye infections, kidney disease and fever.
That is why Chetnalaya, the social wing of Delhi Archdiocese, constructs low-cost toilets in Bawana on the outskirts of Delhi.
“We have built 300 houses with low-cost toilet facilities for people who used to live on platforms and under bridges. They were given land by the government,” Father Savari Raj, director of Chetnalaya, told ucanews.com.
He said they organize rallies in slums on the outskirts of Delhi and in neighboring Haryana state to spread awareness of the harmful affects of open defecation and the advantages of using a toilet in the home.
According to a recent report by WaterAid, 60.4 percent of India's 1.3 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and private toilets.
The report entitled “It’s No Joke: The State of the World’s Toilets,” says that “if you stretched all 774 million people in India now waiting for household toilets, the queue would stretch to the moon — and beyond!”
The result is a health crisis that kills more than 140,000 children under five in India each year. Nearly 40 percent of India’s children are stunted, which will in turn affect both their life chances and the future prosperity of India, the report says.
Sunita of Tilbatta village in Gautam Budh district of Uttar Pradesh rises at 4 a.m. to relieve herself before there is queue for the public toilet.
“There are only two toilets for 10 homes which house 40-50 people. I do not like the public toilet as it is very dirty but we do not have the resources to install one for ourselves,” she said.
Bittu, who lives in the same village, has no access to any toilet so must use the open fields.
“Either we go before sunrise or after sunset as there are men around in the fields during the day,” she said.
Sociologists and experts also feel that the mindset of people also needs to change.
“The toilet problem is a cultural problem,” said B.K. Nagla, head of the sociology department at Maharishi Dayanand University in Rohtak, in northern Haryana state. Even when rural people have toilets in their homes, they often prefer the open fields, he added.
Bhaskar Chatterjee, CEO of the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, said all government efforts would be in vain if the toilets they aim to construct were of bad quality.
There are 170,000 public toilets in India that cannot be used, he lamented.
“What is the point of making toilets which have no doors, windows and water connection,” he asked.
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