76 years on, manual scavenging still prevalent across Karnataka
“There are 7,449 identified manual scavengers in Karnataka,” KB Obalesh, state convener, SKKS, told TNIE.
BENGALURU: In 1972, the Karnataka government had constituted a committee under the chairmanship of IPD Salappa to study the living and working conditions of sweepers and scavengers in the state. The committee submitted its final report in 1976.
“Based on the interim recommendations of this committee, a circular was issued, calling for a ban on the practice of carrying night soil as head load or manual handling thereof by August 15, 1973,” stated Siddhartha KJ in his seminal study, ‘Manual Scavenging in Karnataka – A Situation Assessment’ in January 2020, conducted under the aegis of the Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samithi (SKKS), Karnataka.
Fifty years on, as India celebrates its 76th Independence Day, the practice of manual scavenging continues across districts in Karnataka. “There are 7,449 identified manual scavengers in Karnataka,” KB Obalesh, state convener, SKKS, told TNIE. Manual scavenging is a banned but prevalent practice, of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or any other form of handling of uncompounded human excreta. It is one of the most stigmatized practices among the category of occupations classified as ‘unclean’ occupations in India.
In 1993, Parliament passed The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (EMSCDL) (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which proscribed the construction of dry latrines and employment of persons to clean them.
“The definition of manual scavenging included only cleaning of dry latrines, that is, handling night soil, and excluded from its purview other forms of manual scavenging like cleaning open drains, open defecation, sewer lines etc,” Siddhartha stated in his paper.
The Act had to be adopted and implemented by the states. “Few adopted it and none implemented it. After the complete failure of EMSCDL, in 2013, the Parliament passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act.
The Act prohibits any construction or continued maintenance of insanitary latrines (ILs), which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either situ, or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out before the excreta fully decomposes.
A recent study carried out by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) reported that 92.33 per cent of workers engaging in manual scavenging across 30 districts of Karnataka were Dalits, and 3.3pc belonged to the Scheduled Tribes (ST). Among those surveyed, about 74pc belonged to the Madiga community.
“There are 7,449 manual scavengers in Karnataka, but in 10 out of 18 districts, the district administration had shown zero manual scavengers during the 2020-21 survey,” said Obalesh. He explained that as per standard operating procedure (SOP) for the survey of manual scavengers, it was incumbent upon the survey committee selected by the district administration to first do a survey of ILs in their districts.
“The select committee was mandated to have one person from the community of manual scavengers on board, but the survey was done without any member from the community. The survey concluded that there were no insanitary latrines,” added Obalesh.
“In eight districts where the community of manual scavengers is strong, they identified 2,400 manual scavengers. Because of the improper survey in 10 districts, thousands of manual scavengers were left out of the scheme of rehabilitation, which includes free education, compensation and transition to alternative livelihood professions,” he added.
Manual scavenging is often a hereditary occupation, and is ‘inherited’ from one generation to the next. “Because those who carry out this work belong to the most marginalized section of society, the elimination of manual scavenging has not gained priority, within government, policy-making and civil society circles. As a society, we want cleanliness around us, but we don’t stop to ask who will clean the waste,” asserted Siddhartha.