“I started my work as a manual scavenger after my marriage,” says Premi, as she dabs her tears with her faded yellow cotton dupatta. She’s known as ‘Budhiya’ (an old woman) in the Radhna Inayatpur village in Mawana town of Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh. She doesn’t know her age but her wrinkled face and bent frame suggests that she must be in her early 70s. Every morning, 30 women including Premi, leave their homes at 8 am to work as manual scavengers in the village. They go from house to house scraping off human excreta from dry latrines and collecting it in a cane basket. Once all the houses are covered, they carry the basket on their heads and walk to the dumping ground, just next to their settlement in the village, to get rid of the excreta.
Manual scavenging was banned in India in 1993. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 has outlawed manual cleaning of excrement from insanitary latrines, open drains, or pits and imposes fines on those who construct dry latrines. On March 16, 2017, Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot in response to a question on manual scavenging revealed that 13 States and Union Territories have “reported identification of 12,737 manual scavengers up to January, 2017”. The actual numbers, however, are higher.
Most manual scavenger who clean dry latrines are women
A Human Rights Watch report suggests that out of all those engaged in manual cleaning of dry latrines and removal of human excreta from public streets, 95 per cent are women. Since the toilets are inside the house, those with dry latrines prefer women to clean the excreta instead of men. According to the report, on an average, the women get paid as little as between ten and fifty rupees every month per household, and sometimes as a bonus they are given stale leftover food and worn-out clothes. This is far less than men who earn up to Rs 300 to clean septic tanks and sewer lines on any given day.
“I get two-three dharis (10-15 kgs) of anaaj (food grain) annually for this job. Sometimes, they give me one or two stale rotis,” she says. One dhari of wheat costs something between Rs 70-100. Reena, her daughter-in-law, says that the grains hardly last a week. Premi spends the rest of her day making moti-maala. “That job at least pays her Rs. 30 per day,” says Reena who also works as a manual scavenger along with her daughter.
Premi’s husband worked as a street sweeper before he passed away. She also lost her son a few years ago. Her house, like all Valmiki households, is barely 50 metres from the dumping ground.
Jajmani: A cocktail of patriarchy and caste
Most women when questioned on why the men were paid in cash and the women were paid in kind, looked at each another in silence. After a few seconds, they replied in muffled voices to say that they don’t know. It has just been a practice for many years.
“If women are paid in cash, they can bargain for their own empowerment with their families and also in the places they work for. Thus, they continue being paid in kind,” says Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas and an activist who has been working for the eradication of manual scavenging. He says the practice has a lot to do with putting the onus on women to feed the family.
One of the key reasons why the number of women cleaning dry toilets is higher is the ancient Jajmani system. Jajmani loosely translates to ownership over the rights to clean a select number of dry toilets. The system prevailed in select Dalit communities so that the right to clean a certain number of toilets remained in the family, passing on from one woman to another. Mother-in-laws transferred their jajmani to daughter-in-laws. Even marriages took place on the basis of jajmanis a family held so that the woman would have food security. According to India Exclusion Report 2016, ‘These rights are equivalent to property rights and can be bought and sold, always in connection to the women of the family. In times of crisis, these jajmani documents are also pawned to borrow money.’
Sunita, a former manual scavenger in the village says that the practice is now almost obsolete. “It (jajmani) used to happen earlier. Now parents do not want to give their daughters if a particular Dalit household has to clean more number of dry latrines. They no longer want their daughters to slog whole day.”
Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay award winner and national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, says, “Firstly, all of these workers are Dalits. So that shows that this is a caste problem. Secondly, within the caste, there is patriarchy. So the men are employed where there is more money.” He says that fighting caste and patriarchy is most important to eradicate manual scavenging. “It is not just doing away the dry latrines, broom and bucket,” he adds.
Health severely affected
The unhindered exposure to filth leads to multiple health issues among these women. During monsoon, the rain makes it worse for them as the human excreta often slips through the basket landing on their hair and shoulders. The women also reveal that to battle the stench, they often smoke beedis.
A report submitted to the United Nations by the Rashtriya Gramin Abhiyan in the year 2013 notes that direct handling of excreta by the manual scavengers leads to grave health issues such as vomiting, constant headache, skin and respiratory diseases, trachoma, anemia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and diarrhea. These health hazards include exposure to harmful gases (such as hydrogen sulfide and methane), respiratory problems and infections like Leptospirosis, Hepatitis, and Helicobacter. These conditions are further aggravated by an inability to access proper health care facilities and widespread malnutrition.
Recently, Premi’s other daughter-in-law, Rupa, who had been working as a manual scavenger for over a decade, had to stop after she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. “I was dealing with excreta upto eight hours a day. There were times when I used to clean 100-150 houses a day,” she says. Rupa’s husband, who worked a street sweeper is now an unemployed alcoholic. “All the other women who do this work constantly fall sick. Somebody, or at least the government should do something for us,” she says in a quivering voice. Now, Rupa’s teenaged daughter has taken over the mantle as a manual scavenger since both her parents are unemployed.
“If we go and sit with the other women in the village, they get up and move away. They won’t talk to us unless it is about work. We have a separate hand pump in the village for water. If we need drinking water while working, they pour it from a vessel and we have to drink it like that. Our children are also discriminated against,” says Asha.
Untouchability was declared as a crime six decades ago under the Untouchability Offences Act. The SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 made more stringent rules. Yet, the associations of impurity imposed on a caste are socially and culturally entrenched. Reena says with a smile, “ Nobody lets a Valmiki touch their utensils.”
Why do this job then?
Manual scavengers are often asked why they don’t just ‘choose’ a different profession. This question stems from the ignorance about how the caste system functions. “We do this job so that we can at least feed two rotis to our kids,” says Asha. The India Exclusion Report 2016 explains the vicious cycle the community is trapped in: ‘No poor Brahmin or member of any non-Dalit caste would ever even consider this job of scavenging, not even in a state of complete penury and starvation. This is where it is important to understand how basic one’s caste is to one’s occupation and livelihood…If you speak up against caste oppression then you risk losing your livelihood and often even your life. The livelihood of scavenging, ironically, is in fact the only security that the community has as there is no competition.’
Long march to rehabilitation
On October 2, 2014, the central government announced the Swachh Bharat Mission to construct over 12 crore toilets in rural India. However, the project gives little thought to the workers who will be required to clean these toilets. There is still no budgetary allocation under the scheme to construct sewer lines to deal with the excreta. Wilson says the government just wants the stipulated numbers for toilet construction. “They (the government) are not for the eradication of manual scavenging,” he says.
The Central Government had constituted the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) which gives Rs 40,000 to liberated manual scavengers, which they can withdraw in monthly installments not more than Rs 7,000. Assistant Manager of NSKFDC, RK Gupta, said the money is transferred to the accounts of the scavengers “as soon as they are identified and their documents reach us.”
The one-time cash assistance is necessary since the workers depend on the scavenging job for sustenance, points out Wilson. “When they leave scavenging, they should not suffer for money. Within six months, they have to find other sources of income.”
Most women manual scavengers in Radhna are yet to receive the cash assistance. Gupta said local authorities sometimes do not identify manual scavengers in villages and hence the cash assistance process is delayed. Maya Goutam, an SKA activist who has been working with the scavenging committee in the village, lists the reasons behind this. “The state authorities often ask village pradhans to identify and send them a list of names of those still involved in this job. This is where the problem lies. I have seen many leaders naming members of their family to get the money. Some, just fail to identify all manual scavengers in the village.”
Under the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, the liberated manual scavengers are also entitled to get loans up to Rs 15 lakh. However, the National Commission for Scheduled Caste noted that the “expenditure for the last three years is negligible.” Furthermore, Gupta revealed the process of getting loans has become difficult recently since banks “do not trust the community with loans.”
Gupta claims that NSKFDC tried training women manual scavengers in beauty, apparel, handicraft and other sectors and during that period, they are paid a stipend of Rs. 3,000 but many women don’t want to spend a lot of time in training. “They still don’t understand the need to quit the profession,” he says.
The process of rehabilitation for women manual scavengers is also gendered because all rehabilitation schemes aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers are focused on an imaginary male breadwinner. Wilson points out, “The community never had any kind of a business skill for their livelihood except scavenging. When you are thinking about the rehabilitation of a woman, you can’t offer a tractor to her if they are not willing to work with it. So the government has to develop a clear mechanism to offer rehabilitation and promote it.”
Most women manual scavengers in Radhna Inayatpur are untouched by these discourses on rehabilitation. All they want is a square meal for their family. Like Premi says, “I need help but that can only happen if the government acknowledges me as a manual scavenger after five decades of work. Please ask them to do that first.”
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