Seema is about 15-16 years old, says her mother Resamvati. She does not go to school anymore. For about two years, she “occasionally” assisted her mother in cleaning dry latrines of upper caste families in their village, Mahmadpur in UP’s Hathras district. Now, that is her ‘job’.
In Nanau village in Akrabad block, years of picking human waste has left 60-year-old Bisanbati with a failing health. “I have to clean the latrines even when I am ill. Otherwise, members from Thakur’s families come to call us,” she says.
On the days it rains, the task of these women becomes messier and dirtier. “I can’t even drink a glass of water after cleaning the faeces. I have to take bath first,” says Rani at Nadrai village.
When it comes to cleaning dry latrines, manual scavenging is not only a caste-based but also a gender-based occupation with mostly women being engaged to do this work.
In a survey being conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, around 53,000 people have come forward and identified themselves as manual scavengers, according to the National Safai Karamchari Finance Development Corporation (NSKFDC) -- the nodal agency conducting the survey. However, the government has taken cognisance of over 15,000 people so far.
Historically, the untouchables have been forced to do the ‘dirty work’ in villages in India. The Valmiki community, which is at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, is engaged in manual scavenging of various forms. “When urbanisation started and people started making toilets at their houses, cleaning excreta fell on the Valmiki community, which was considered the most untouchable even among the other lower castes,” says Ashif Shaikh, covener, Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and member of national monitoring committee of the Ministry.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 2.6 million insanitary latrines in the country,which requiree physically removing human excreta. Under the Swachh Bharat scheme, toilet blocks have come up, but many states continue to have dry latrines, which is why manual scavenging has still not been eradicated despite being banned in law.
In the ongoing survey, being carried out in 170 districts across 18 states, the biggest lacunae is that the data does not include those employed by the Ministry of Railways, says B Wilson of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).
At Seema’s house, Manju, a community worker with SKA, tries to negotiate with her parents to send her back to school. The government will provide them with one-time compensation — cash incentive of Rs 40,000 — once their names are approved in the survey, Manju tells the family. “It all looks good on paper. Do we have any other means of income in this village? At the end of the day, we need ration for the house,” retorts Seema’s father Jai Prakash.
Rajvati, 30, recounts how she found it difficult for years to reconcile with the fact that she was cleaning human faeces. She quit the work three months back. For most, however, it is not easy.
This practice could have been removed more easily had it not been for the economics behind it, Shaikh explains. “The compensations for the work come in the form of rotis, used clothes, some incentives during festivals or marriages, utensils, yearly ration etc.. The dependency of the lower caste people on the upper castes is such that they are not in a position to negotiate. It would mean they would starve,” he says.
Pinky, 25, who left her husband after repeated torture, dreams of owning a sewing machine and seeking a different future for her daughter. For now, “aur koi jugaad nahi hain (There is no alternative)”, she sighs.
In the absence of other livelihood options, many see this job as a necessary evil. “I have cleaned toilets for 40 years. I’ve not known a life beyond it,” says Bimla Devi, 50. The building of toilets has meant receiving less wheat. She’s worried how she’ll sustain once toilet blocks replace dry latrines. The one-time cash payment will not be enough, she adds.
Munni Devi in Kasaganj gets a paltry `100 from five households. “Otherwise they will push the excreta with water towards the drain from which I have to clean it anyway for free.”
Holding promises for the future, K Narayan, managing director of the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation—the nodal agency for the survey—says: “There is a self-employment loan scheme for manual scavengers and skill development programme where they will be imparted training. It will take a while before their rehabilitation falls in place. It will take up to one or two years.”
Men are employed to clean septic and sewer tanks. Private contractors do not provide them with glove or headgear. “Workers are not given any training or safety gear before they go inside the septic tanks. The people cleaning the tanks are not educated and do not question the authorities,” says Prashant Prasad, district coordinator, SKA, Aligarh.
Deepak, 26, went to clean a septic tank one evening five years ago and never returned. “We had no idea cleaning a septic tank is so dangerous,” says his wife Komal, 24. In many cases, families of those who lose their lives cleaning fail to get compensation from the government.
Why do they go inside to clean the tanks knowing the dangers? “We have to bring up our kids,” says Sunil of Kasaganj district.
‘It’s a sham survey’
I doubt the intention of the survey. It is just a show-off...In several instances, women are being threatened by district officials and police on why they still clean dry latrines. So we are missing out on counting a big chunk of people... The government has to put in place necessary mechanism to stop this practice. How can people come out of this profession when there’s no rehabilitation package? This is an unscientific approach... B Wilson, founder, Safai Karmachari Andolan
What is an insanitary latrine?
A latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either in situ, or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out, before the excreta fully decomposes. According to the 2011 Census, dry latrines exist in all states/UTs except in Goa, Sikkim, Chandigarh and Lakshadweep. This points to the existence of manual scavenging.