Gender and Caste Dimensions of Manual Scavenging

Shrilakshmi R – Student at IIT Madras

(A report on the panel discussion with Anand Teltumbde, Bezwada Wilson, P. S. Krishnan chaired by C. Lakshamanan in August 2013 before the Passage of the New Act against Manual Scavenging in September 2013)

Attempting to explore the various dimensions of manual scavenging, the panellists unanimously concluded that all through India, women from only one particular Dalit caste, known by different names in various regions, were being structurally forced to take up this occupation. As is the norm, the burden of “carrying forth the tradition” falls on the womenfolk of the community. Having stated this, Mr. Anand Teltumbde further noted that though manual scavengers were supposed to be given alternative employment under 1993 Act, as per the Supreme Court ruling, several deadlines have whooshed past but the authorities have till now not lifted a finger against anybody. So the people who are engaged in this occupation are forced to continue in it, and their children also end up in it, much to their chagrin. The two main issue he tried to bring to the fore were first abolish manual scavenging and then rehabilitate people engaged in it. Strict policy measures, including enforcing the existing ones would be needed for abolition while strong will-power was required to address the latter, he opined. The former required the utilisation of technology known only too well to humankind. After all, this was the place where Indus Valley civilization had flourished that had planned cities and common baths and underground drainage systems in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

A Shot from the Movie “Shit Still Happens”

For a generation that wonders if any of such heinous practices still exist in the country, it could be considered quite shocking to be told that practise of caste-based allotment of Class-IV jobs still continues at the Panchayat level. For such innocent souls so alienated from the social realities in India, Mr. Bezwada Wilson’s talk was enlightening and revolting at the same time. Hailing from such a community himself, Mr. Wilson effectively shared the real-life experience of being born to a scavenger mother who desperately wished for her children’s better future. Both his brother and sister were sucked in by this despicable system for the sheer lack of choice. He took up the cause of his community and brought it to national attention. Fighting endless, looping legal battles, facing humiliation in the name of caste, even at/in the hands of the most “reformed” members of the society he founded the Safai Karamchari Aandolan., He could have been the only panellist who had the highest credibility to talk so passionately. He also isolated the two sub- dimensions associated with manual scavenging: stigma associated with manual scavenging and the shamelessness of the general public in dirtying the space due to lack of proper facilities. He noted that the discrimination that the Dalits face in the country are so deep-rooted and cruel that if one was born Dalit, he/she will have no chance to live with dignity and would eventually succumb to suicide, if not murdered already. More than just the general human rights violation, this shows that 66 years of independence and 150 years of colonial past have only strengthened practices that are otherwise thought to exist only in the ancient times in the country.

After screening of a couple of documentaries, “Maila Mukthi Yatra”  and clippings of “Shit Still Happens” along with some raw footages followed the discussion. The former was on an initiative by liberated scavenging women, who were earlier forced to engage in scavenging but now were members of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan.They had toured the country for two month (from December 2012 to January 2013) the country to spread the message against manual scavenging and liberate their counterparts in other parts of the countries. The latter was an exhibition of the manual scavenging of the otherwise “officially non-existent scavenging” sanitation employees of the Railways at Chennai Central Station, shot by the students associated with Forum Against Manual Scavenging consisting- at that time-of students from IIT Madras, ACJ and MIDS . Enlightening in their own way, both made an impact on the audience.

The response and the policy measures taken up by the government were highlighted by Mr. P. S. Krishnan, an Ex-IAS officer who had been earlier a member of National Commission for SC/ST. And the Q&A that followed brought out the mixed feelings of unrest and shame that seemed to have pervaded the audience. Each member felt responsible for making lives of fellow Indians miserable and left with a disturbed conscience and a confused judgement. Maybe this glitch in the usual monotony of a lazy Sunday evening could jolt a few of us to wakefulness towards the reality that most Indians seem to live in and do something for such causes and the Nation.


Flushing Out Scavengers from the Plan.

8:27 Hrs- Chennai Central Station… Sounds of bustling feet and platform announcements that dies in the din of the crowded, sweaty humanity; a trumpet blare followed by a jerk and the train leaves the platform pushing and huffing.

Manual Scavenger at the Chennai Central Station

Manual Scavenger at the Chennai Central Station

A kind of ethereal calm sets in.

Then, as if out of nowhere, a woman walks in. Dressed in a blue saree and a bright neon coat that screams “ALL SERVICES”, she purposefully strides to the end of the platform and jumps right into the tracks where the train had just left. A couple of others join her and they begin working with hose pipes and brooms. And what exactly do they do? They earn their living from cleaning shit from the train tracks- a day in the life of a manual scavenger and nothing more.

Amrithini (40) works as a contract employee of the Indian Railways and she is paid to sweep away human excreta from the tracks of the Chennai Central station every morning. Ironically, Amrithini doesn’t complain.  Her poverty and social status compel her  to compromise on her health and dignity.She earns a monthly salary of Rs 5000- Rs 6000 for this inhuman form of labour. Moreover, she is satisfied with the work she does since she does not have any better option. She claims-

“I am happy with my work. This work is easier. Earlier, I used carry bricks on my head, which was back-breaking.”

At the Chennai Central station, manual scavengers work in three shifts- 5 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 11 pm and 11 pm to 8 pm. While the Supreme Court has pulled up the Centre on manual scavenging in the cities and other areas, the practice continues unabatedly in railway stations.

In the Railway Budget 2012-13, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has announced an outlay of Rs 500 crore to install 2,500 bio-toilets on passenger trains. However, no time-bound framework has been suggested. In fact, this announcement about bio-toilets has figured in the Railway Budgets of the last few years and the tracks in the Chennai railway station continue to be cleaned by 50 to 60 workers.

Critics of this quick-fix solution brought out by the Railways, point out that the scheme does not provide for the rehabilitation of the workers who will become unemployed when the bio-toilets are installed. Also, there is a high-infrastructure requirement in all stations to materialize the bio-toilet plan which has not been taken into consideration by the authorities. As Bezwada Wilson, Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan clearly says,

 “Bio-toilets are just a hog-wash. It is the lip-service from the Ministry. No time-bound plan has been chalked out for bio-toilets.”

When informed of the alternatives proposed by the Railway authorities to manual scavenging, Amrithini is bewildered. She reminds us that they (manual scavengers) have been working for the Indian Railways for a long time and how can they be left in the lurch without proper rehabilitation.

A railway official says, “Going-green is a remarkable initiative as it will stop the corrosion of tracks, but overlooking the rehabilitation part of cleaners is deplorable.”

Ashif Shaikh, convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, notes,

“The recognition of manual scavengers working at stations is the main issue. Un-recognised manual scavengers are unlikely to get any benefit if bio-toilets are introduced.”

Ashif puts the blame on the definition of manual scavenging, mentioned in the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act, 1993. The Act recognises only dry-latrine cleaners as manual scavengers. He adds-

“The denial mode of the Railways stems from the contractual nature of manual scavengers at stations. Stations issue tenders and outsource cleaning work to contractors—for example, Sulabh. This is one of the ways the station people can wash their hands off and prevent their getting implicated in manual scavenging.”

At the Chennai Central station, the cleaning work is outsourced, and none of the workers is a permanent employee. Most of the workers stay in the vicinity of the station. As trains leave the station, a fleet of workers clean what is left behind. They flush, sweep and pick human waste with small shovels and metal pans.  A supervisor who oversees manual scavengers says,

“We use hose pipes to clean the tracks near the platform where diesel has spilt. Elsewhere, we ask workers to clean the tracks.”

According to Bezwada Wilson, 

“The Railways do not come under the purview of the new Bill.  According to the Bill, only a notification can be sent to the Railways.”

The Prohibihion of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill which was tabled 2012 is supposedly an improved and more inclusive version of the previously mention 1993 Bill. In reference to the definition of ‘manual scavengers”, this apparently progressive Bill has defined it thus,

…a person engaged or employed… for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine… or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central or a State Government may notify..”

As this definition clearly states, the Central or State Government can only notify via the Official Gazette regarding manual scavenging within the Railway jurisdiction and does not really pressurize the Railways to act. With the Railways, the largest employer of manual scavengers in India, not under the purview of the new Bill, an end to the scourge of this distressing practice remains a distant dream.