June 29, 2021 6:46:10 pm
(Written by V R Raman and Kanika Singh)
“We have been doing this work over generations. When we retire our daughters-in-law will do it. After that, their daughters-in-law will. This will go on,” says Gauri (name changed), while narrating her plight. Gauri is one of the several thousands of people engaged in one of the worst forms of manual scavenging — emptying and cleaning insanitary dry latrines in her locality every day, and carrying the human waste on her head before disposing of it. Most of these women are waiting in despair for the day when they and their families would be freed from the shackles of this inhuman work, meagre and exploitative income, poverty, caste-based oppression, gender discrimination, health challenges and human rights violations.
It is important to note here that manual scavenging work is usually passed on to one’s “heir” as a jagir (holding), despite strong legal mandates prohibiting the practice across the country, such as The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR 2013), and a subsequent order by the Supreme Court of India in 2014.
There are a few government schemes aimed at empowering those engaged in manual scavenging to move away from this practice, such as the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), wherein identified manual scavengers are eligible for one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, loans to start a new business, as well as for paid training and skill-building (with a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month up to 2 years). Notably, there are also measures in place for supporting the education of children of persons engaged in manual scavenging, in order to liberate the next generations from this work, which includes a pre-matriculation scholarship scheme and education loans. However, the lack of any budget allocation for the pre-matriculation scholarship scheme as part of the union budget 2021-22, as opposed to an allocation of Rs 25 crore in the previous year, says a lot about the actual situation of the support provided.
Having lived a life full of neglect, humiliation and injustice, with no support, many persons engaged in manual scavenging see access to education as a pathway for at least their children to break the vicious cycle of caste-based discrimination and inhuman work, and gain a dignified livelihood. However, due to societal discrimination and systemic exclusion, the next generations of these workers find it highly challenging to secure places in educational institutions and schemes, which keeps them tied to the inter-generational challenges faced by their predecessors for ages. Many of them are unable to complete school education. Preliminary findings from an ongoing study by WaterAid India, show the dismal state of access to education among their children, with nearly 1 in 3 respondents stating their children had no access to formal education. Further, only 4 per cent of the respondents attested to being able to avail pre-matriculation scholarships for their children.
The inter-generational cycle of caste-based discrimination and oppression has a severe impact on their self-esteem and confidence as well, making it tougher to escape the confines of this inhuman work. Caste hierarchies and the resulting oppression are so deep-rooted in society, that even the few youths who do manage to complete their education, continue to face exclusion and discrimination during their pursuit for meaningful and dignified employment. In one of the project locations, a young man from a family of manual scavengers could not secure any employment despite being a graduate. After several unsuccessful attempts to find a salaried job, he was forced to return to his caste-bound work in manual scavenging. The need for survival, coupled with the difficulties in overcoming their caste identities and the resulting oppression, compels such educated youth to stick to the inhuman profession. Owing to such situations, the youth from these communities also face several mental health challenges.
How can we, as a society and a country that is committed to equality and non-discrimination, attend to the issues of these workers and their next generations?
Firstly, both the state and society would need to adopt a stronger resolve to stop engaging individuals in manual scavenging, to eliminate all possible manual interfaces of these workers with faecal matter and fight for the rights of those communities and people engaged in manual scavenging to a dignified life, free from all discrimination and exploitation. However, to realise this, a fresh (and sincere) round of identification and enrolment drive must be attempted for listing all individuals engaged in manual scavenging, focussing on women who are generally overlooked from such records. One such national drive underway has been through the Swachhata Abhiyan App, but the successful outcomes of such technological platforms heavily depend on adequate human and institutional support mechanisms for proper data collection using technology, which appears to be missing, and we don’t know yet about the progress and outcomes of this process. Here, we need to fix clear responsibilities and accountabilities, build awareness and realisation of the realities amongst local authorities as well as staff, and introduce newer incentives — to encourage and ensure proactive identification, registration, disbursement of one-time cash assistance and facilitation for loans under SRMS. This should be complemented by regular state and national-level reviews and course correction measures. At the societal level, there is a dire need for cultural and awareness interventions too, in order to build solidarity towards the deprived castes and classes of people, among the general public.
The provisions under SRMS help address only a part of the challenges faced by manual scavengers. The National Human Rights Commission has recommended enhancing the one-time cash assistance from Rs 40,000 to Rs one lakh, which should be implemented on priority. The rehabilitation support can’t stop at that, and it needs to be supplemented with initiatives to help them identify feasible livelihood options, build their technical as well as business skills necessary for starting and sustaining these livelihoods. Given the multi-faceted nature of this problem, this can be done through long-term cross-sectoral partnerships between NGOs and technical agencies having expertise in Dalit rights, community institutions building, skill training, and livelihoods promotions. Building linkages with existing government programmes such as National Urban and Rural Livelihood Missions is another way. A series of trainings and exposure visits recently undertaken by WaterAid India show that this can help people to gain confidence and optimism in their journey towards rehabilitation, but it should be followed with sustained handholding and support.
To ensure proper education and support for the children of these communities, it is critical to ensure accountability of the concerned ministries and their officials, including the Ministries of Education, and Social Justice and Empowerment. At the community level, CSO-led platforms may be deployed to actively identify eligible children and youth. At higher administration levels, authorities may undertake a series of reviews of this process encouraging inter-departmental counterbalance mechanisms. Additionally, adding special provisions for children from these communities in the Right to Education Act might help strengthen the current education support structure for them.
It is important to understand that this is not just a reservation process, but also ensures that these students get the right support to build their skills, confidence and competencies, equivalent to other candidates from advanced backgrounds. Further, efforts could be made to institutionalise mentoring by achievers coming from similar backgrounds, encourage peer learning and provide additional tutoring support when required.
The question is, do we, both as the state and society, want to and have the willingness to, give these workers and their next generations a life that they deserve?
Raman is head of policy with WaterAid India and Singh is manager of an advocacy project on sanitation workers with WaterAid UK
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