Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Scavengers’ Plight: Does Manual Scavenging still exist….?

Shilpi Tandon | July 6, 2016 11:11 am Print
Today, as we come closer to completing seven decades of our Independence, whether the basic reforms have been effectuated or not and put into force for the labour class, especially in the field of cleaning and rag-picking... Let’s find out...

Human scavenging

“Cleaning up the country cannot be the sole responsibility of sanitation workers. Do citizens have no role in this? We have to change this mind-set…. India should learn from foreign countries, where people are disciplined and do not litter in public places”
(PM Modi while he launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission)

It was a pre-monsoon shower in Delhi, but quite an incessant one for two consecutive days, resulting in loudest traffic snarls and extreme congestion on roads due to waterlogging. Life seemed to have come to a halt. Third day, I woke up to a nice, beautiful fresh morning with a clear sky, alluring me to experience it. It was a Sunday, which is considered the most relaxing day of the week in India as most of the offices remain closed, so I decided to ‘accept the invitation’ and start the day with a morning walk and inhale some fresh air (we Delhites actually have to make an effort to inhale fresh breeze)

As the clock struck quarter to six, I tied my shoelaces and tried to unlock the main door without any sound, keeping in mind that everyone was asleep and hence, did not want to disturb any of them. As I was about to step out, my ten-year-old nephew came running to me rubbing his eyes and put his first query of the day whether I was planning to go out and, if yes, for how long, and if there was some ‘special’ reason of the ‘outing’. Hurriedly, I just informed him that I was going out for a walk to breathe some fresh air as it was a beautiful breeze out there flowing and attracting me to experience it. In a rather heavier than his sweet own-voice, he tried to threaten me of raising an alarm so that everyone woke up and stop me from going out (my poor little foodie ‘thing’ was sure that I was going out to eat something alone). When in deep crisis, one resorts to all means. I too had to sacrifice my wish to go out alone in the fresh air and had to take my little bag of queries with me to entertain his inquisitive character along with a promise of ‘Jalebi’.

Delhi is most beautiful in the morning hours, especially due to no or less traffic, all the more when the blossoms and the greenery glitter and shine after showers. The previous night’s rain drops were still resting on the petals and leaves. My nephew was leaping like a fawn and reaching out to each and every leaf and playing with those tiny droplets. Looking at his excitement, I felt happy and thanked myself for the decision to take him along. I realized that kids are so natural hence should not be deprived of any chance and an opportunity to get close, feel and enjoy Nature.

Now, by this time, other walkers from adjoining apartments had also started coming out, joining us in morning walk, some alone, some with a company and some even with their pets. As we proceeded, we noticed number of patches of waterlogging along the roadside. We also observed that both sides of the road were dug for some pipeline work and left open without any ‘warning’ signboard or cover. We wondered why potholes were always left open during or near Monsoon season despite high on mosquito alert and numbers of child-fall incidents.

I noticed, my nephew was not liking the ‘Masters’ allowing their pets to squat and excrete anywhere on the roads or footpath. The number of joggers and walkers was increasing, so the number of their pets and their dirt too. I observed my little bundle of joy turning pale, so tried to rejuvenate him by reminding him of his favourite ‘Jalebi’. He readily agreed with a grin. It was already seven and we were about to reach an eating joint which opens early to serve office goers. But being a Sunday, I wasn’t sure if it was open or not. Suddenly, a whiff of ‘sugar coated syrup’ filled us with more excitement and we almost started running towards it. To our pleasant surprise, the shop was open and we could see people making queue in front of the ‘Jalebi’ corner. We ordered for some and joined the queue waiting for the ‘Jalebiwala’ to make and pack our share. But soon, ‘waiting’ started getting unpleasant due to some ‘strange’ kind of spreading smell.

As we looked around, we noticed that there was some digging going on in one corner of the road and realized that the place was stinking like a sewer. Both the odours (sugar syrup and sewer) were getting mixed and spreading that ‘strange’ kind of smell which was making it difficult to stand there even for a moment. So, quickly we took our ‘Jalebi’ and started moving back towards home.
While we were returning, we saw that the same kind of digging had started on ‘our road’ too and the same stinking smell was spreading in the air, making it tough for us to even try to breathe. My little companion was holding his ‘precious belonging’ tightly with utmost care and almost running to get back home and enjoy his favourite delicacy. Suddenly, he stopped and turned back which prompted me too to see what he was up to. What we saw was one of the saddest sights ever seen. A young boy, not much older to my nephew was helping an older one (who was standing inside a neck-deep muddy pit) in cleaning the waterlogged area, occurred due to blockage of the drain pipes and the manholes. They did not have any ‘special instrument’ or a machine to take out the filthy and the rotten garbage stuck inside. They were doing the job bare hands.

My companion was almost in tears. He asked, when it was so difficult for us to even pass through that dirt, then how could those cleaners stand there, go inside the muddy pit and clean everything without any instrument or gloves?? Couldn’t they smell?? Were their smell senses disabled?? Didn’t they have a fear of any infection or an insect bite?? Didn’t dirt bother them?? Couldn’t they have proper tools, machines and covers so that they could protect themselves prior to doing such an ‘essential’ job. They were humans and, that too, vital part of the system…!! Weren’t they?? Could we survive without Cleaners and Rag-Pickers?? Were their lives so worthless that could be put into so much of dirt and risk??

While we were moving back, the little boy’s words kept echoing in my mind. Yes, I accept that Cleaners are an essential part of the society. It is these people who not only do such a necessary work so quietly, without expecting any favours, without knowing their importance and potential, but also, are among the least paid, badly affected and the worst-suffered workers. Unfortunately, despite after various Legislations and Prohibitions, manual scavenging does exist. Manual scavenging is a term used in Indian English for the removal of untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines. It involves moving the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which the workers carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometres away. The workers, called scavengers, rarely have any personal protective equipment.

The employment of manual scavengers was prohibited in India in 1993 and the law was extended and clarified in 2013. According to Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. The 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India. The state of Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.

The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually. Due to the nature of the job, many of the workers have related health problems, sometimes resulting in untimely death.

Suddenly, my chain of thoughts broke with my little companion’s whimper. He was pointing towards an old woman, a scavenger, manually cleaning all the ‘Pet-Walk Remains’. I could observe a few sparkles missing among hundreds of sparks shining in my little buddy’s pure, innocent eyes. Kids are considered ‘Godlike’ because they are natural, because they can’t hide their emotions. They can’t pretend, and are spontaneous in nature.
My nephew quietly went up to that scavenger and, as a tribute, with tearful eyes, and a grateful smile, handed over his ‘Jalebi’ bag to her.

“Because of the nature of the work, manual scavenging has contributed to a self-perpetuating cycle of stigma and untouchability”- Navi Pillay (Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)

The reverberation still haunts….

Shilpi Tandon
Shilpi Tandon