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By Shuriah Niazi with Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Manual Scavenger Girl - India
- Manual Scavenging Girl, India – Matt Corks 2006 image -

“In some urban slums of many major cities of India, and more so in the case of semi-urban areas, dry toilets are a sad part of the common reality,” said Dr. Sam Paul, National Secretary of Public Affairs, All India Christian Council, a human rights organization based in Secunderabad, India, in a recent report for the All India Christian Council on March 28.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UN-HRC), at a 2002 meeting of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, said, “Public latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four kilometers away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger’s hair, clothes and body.”

In spite of the modernization of many parts of India, the age old custom of using dry – non-flush – toilets have exposed many bio-hazards to women in India who work as manual scavengers. Manual scavengers are, “exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB (tuberculosis) is rife among the community,” continues the UN report.

This is only a fraction of the suffering women manual scavengers face today in India. Labor slavery, severe discrimination and lack of the most basic human rights are only some of the challenges.

A 2005, US Department of Health, report states that disease for women manual scavengers can be “passed directly from soiled hands to the mouth or indirectly by way of objects, surfaces, food or water soiled with faeces.”

Women working unprotected are in grave danger of contacting countless diseases through their daily and close contact with human waste. Some of these diseases, in addition to TB, include: campylobacter infection, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, hand, foot and mouth disease, hepatitis A, meningitis (viral), rotavirus infection, salmonella infection, shigella infection, thrush, viral gastroenteritis, worms and yersiniosis.

Facing the dangers of daily contact, “Ninety percent of all manual scavengers have not been provided proper equipment to protect them from faeces borne illness,” said a recent, Jan 2007, report on safety by India’s TISS – Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This includes safety equipment like gloves, masks, boots and/or brooms.

The use of hands by women manual scavengers, along with the certainty that they will have direct skin contact with human waste, is a very dangerous combination that is contributing to serious health conditions. Chronic skin diseases and lung diseases are very common among women manual scavengers.

To add to the danger, “Removal of bodies and dead animals is the third most common practice of manual scavenging, preceeded by sewerage sweeping, and the carrying of night-soil by basket/bucket or on the head,” continued the 2007 TISS report.

In spite of its being “illegal” the practice and use of manual scavengers continues in many low-income urban and rural parts of India today.

But the law is clear.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine Act of 1993 states that, “No person shall engage in or employ for or permit to be engaged in or employed by any other person for manually carrying human excreta; or to construct or maintain a dry latrine.”

Legal loopholes and non-enforcement of the law on manual scavenging continues in many parts of India, even as organizations protecting the rights of manual scavengers present detailed reports. At present the ST/SC All India Commission, representing the lowest castes and tribes in India, has much more to do to strengthen legislation on India’s illegal industry.

On the first week of July this year, the United Nations will be hosting two dozen women manual scavengers to tell their life stories to the UN General Assembly. One of them is Usha Chomar, from the town of Alwar in Rajasthan district of Western India.

Remembering her childhood in India at the age of seven, Chomar recounts, “When I was a little child I would often insist on taking a broom from my mother so I could do the scavenging. The disposal of human excreta was the only thought that dominated my mind.”

“The worst part of this primitive toilet system is the method of clearing these human feces. Men and women, often right from their teens, invariably the Dalits of the Dalit do this ignoble job,” continues Dr. Paul in his March 2008 report. “They literally sweep the feces with their hands using two small metal sheets collecting them into a bucket or bin to be eventually dumped into another larger container (sometimes sealed but often kept open) the contents of which is periodically disposed of far away.”

“I remember the first time I had to carry a basketful on my head. I slipped and fell into the gutter. No one would come to pick me up because the basket was so dirty and I was covered with filth,” said manual scavenger Safai Karmachari Andolan, Sept 2006, for The Hindu news magazine – FRONTLINE. “I sat there, howling, until another woman scavenger arrived,” continued Safai. “She hosed me down and took me home. But that day, I felt like the most unfortunate child in the whole world.”

Making up 98 percent of the majority of manual scavenging workers, these women, also known as “Valmikis,” come from the very lowest castes in India.

As India juggles its many traditions, with an incoming tide of new technological advancement from the modern world, legal solutions in the crisis for women manual scavengers are being lost in India’s longstanding “bureaucratic” shuffle.

The 2007 dateline, set by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation to end the practice of manual scavenging in India, has now been reached without success. “2010 might be a more realistic deadline,” admitted Kumari Selja, rural agriculturalist and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Minister.

Placed on the bottom of the list in India’s legislation, women manual scavengers are trapped by Indian society and caste discrimination, as they endlessly bound in cycles of poverty, inequality and lost opportunity.

According to the 2006 FRONTLINE report by The Hindu Times, “There are approx 50,000 – 60,000 scavengers (both men and women) in Gujarat alone” in the same city that hailed the birth of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.

“Mahatma Gandhi raised the issue of the horrible working and social conditions of Bhangis (manual scavengers) more than 100 years ago, in 1901, at the Congress meeting in Bengal. Yet it took about 90 years for the country to enact a uniform law abolishing manual scavenging,” says Dr. Sam Paul.

Cleaning the Sewers
– Cleaning the sewers of India –

Inheriting the work of manual scavenging from her mother-in-law for 15 years in the village of Tonkakala in the Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh of Central India, Rekha Bai unwillingly continued her position as a manual scavenger. “I did not like this work. But I was forced to do this to make both ends meet. There was no alternative,” she confided.

Rekha tried to stop carrying night-soil after struggling for years with the hard conditions surrounding manual scavengers in Tonkakala. Finally, she decided to give up her “detestable work.” Soon after quitting she had to resume, due to pressures placed on her to continue by her family, neighbors and community. Today, in spite of the struggles in finding new work, Rekha has been able to change jobs and move on.

The outcome in the case of Laxmi Bai of Devgarh village is not as good. After struggling with the work that “no one wants to do” she quit as a manual scavenger, but resumed her work again after staying away only two months.

Vimla Bai and Dhanna Lal, two other women from Devgarh village, faced many similar dilemmas as they worked for years under detestable conditions. Even though they are still considered to be “untouchable” by India’s society at large, they have managed to push through to finally free themselves from the work of manual scavenging.

The Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh has almost ended the practice of manual scavenging. But it is continuing unabated in other districts of Central India. Even though the “illegal” act of carrying night-soil is steadily on the wane, the basic problems for women manual scavengers remain the same.

Struggling to find the means to a new livelihood in India often makes changes impossible and out of reach for women manual scavengers.

Women working in the “night-soil” industry are often caught in an endless bind of indebtedness to the upper-caste neighbor households they serve. As they accept loans from employers for their “illegal” work, the women are trapped in an ongoing cycle of debt. These “impossible” loans, coming with a standard 10 percent finance charge, often leave the women workers in a state of perpetual obligation, servitude and bondage.

Unable to pay back any loan, with very little money, many women reach a point of great personal crisis. “Their poverty is so acute that, in desperation, some Bhangis resort to separating out non-digested wheat from buffalo dung,” continues the 2002 UN-HRC report.

To shift away from their labor as “night-soil” workers, many women in India try to seek work as farm laborers to help sustain their families. But they are often met with discouraging news. Getting these jobs are not easy. Today charity assistance and some government aide is available to help women locate new jobs. But, unfortunately, the jobs are scarce. Most jobs available are usually reserved for men.

Vimla Bai, who worked many years as a manual scavenger in Devgarh before she broke free, confided, “It is not easy to get any other job after giving up this work. People do not want to employ us due to (our) untouchability.”

Despite prohibitions in India, “untouchability” continues to be accepted as part of the normal cultural landscape.

Not all women manual scavengers are from the Dalit community. The Tarana village of the Ujjain district region use women members from the Muslim Haisla caste to carry night-soil. Using baskets on their heads they work at the same pace in the same way as all other women do in India who gather human waste. There is no formal training in this occupation, but the expectations are clearly outlined.

Even though the usual discrimination against “untouchability” for this job does not apply inside the religion of Islam, the Haisla women are still greatly “set-apart” due to their work as manual scavengers.

“I did not like carrying night-soil. But there was so much pressure of family and society that I had no other option,” said Taslim from Kayatha, India. “However, I decided to give up this work after the social workers persuaded me. It is my endeavor that no other woman in this area may have to do this work again,” she added.

Just how much money do women manual scavengers in Central India get for their work? In one month the usual pay, for removing human waste, averages 20 to 30 rupees – approx 50 cents to a little more than one dollar USD – from each household. On special occasions or festivals, women manual scavengers might even manage to get one sweet roti or some throw-away clothes from those who employ them.

The JanSahas organization of India began eight years ago, in 2000, to help women scavengers find a new life. Starting first by helping women find alternative employment in the rural and urban areas of Dewas, Ujjain and the Indore districts of Madhya Pradesh, JanSahas finds it is an “uphill” climb to help, educate and empower the women.

Assistance for women working in the “night-soil” industry is challenged today by a dichotomy of legislative inconsistencies. According to law, children can receive scholarships for their education only as long as their family continues to work as scavengers. Indian government officials say these scholarships are meant only for the children of people engaged in “insanitary occupations.” But once women manual scavengers quit their work it becomes clear – there are no more scholarships for their children.

“This is the reason that many women have returned to this work after quitting it once,” said Mr. Ashif Sahikh from the office of JanSahas.

“My grandsons and granddaughters were discriminated at school when we used to work. Now that we have quit, we are no longer in a position to send them to school,” said 54 yr. old Mannu Bai from the small village of Sia, who’s population is only 2,500.

In rural Sia, many manual scavengers wait for the ripening of crops to find new work. When the jobs do not become available, women and their families wait again to get permission from Sia’s legislative office to work cleaning sewage from the drains and gutters of the village. After only 15 days, though, according to the rule of law in Sia, even this meager and difficult work must be given to another waiting family.

In 2002, recommendations by the UN-HRC outlined two solutions to improve the terrible conditions facing women manual scavengers in India. The first solution: “The Government of India should press all states to implement The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, and prosecute officials responsible for the perpetuation of the practice.” The second solution: “The Government of India should ensure that all manual scavengers are rehabilitated according to the law in all states throughout the country.”

It’s a shame, after 60 years of independence, after reports, meetings and humanitarian outcrys on the continuing use of manual scavengers in India, that the government of India has still failed to eradicate this inhuman practice. Many of the regional State governments of India have actually denied the existence of dry latrines and the practice of manual scavenging.

Several affidavits and counter affidavits showing the existence of dry latrines and manual scavenging are now due to appear in the 2008 Indian Court.

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To see other reports, actions and programs on women manual scavenging:

Safai Karamchari Andolan 2008 report on manual scavenging in India
Public Affairs Centre – Bangalore, India
TISS – Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Ongoing Field Action Projects, Dalit and Tribal Issues
Dalit Freedom Network
Anti-Slavery.org – UN Commission on Human Rights. 2002 report
All India Christian Council – India government report resources

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Journalist Shuriah Niazi is a WNN correspondent based in Central India. In 2006, he received an award recognition at the sixth Sarojini Naidu journalism awards hosted by The Hunger Project – India. Human rights journalist, radio broadcast producer and 2007 Pushcart prize nominee Lys Anzia is editor-at-large for Women News Network – WNN.

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