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Manual Scavenging: Must Be Eradicated Right Away

By Ram Puniyani

03 May, 2010

Indian society is riddled with many evil practices, some of which tantamount to atrocity on one or other section of the dalit/deprived sections of society. One such atrocity is the manual scavenging; the removal of human excreta by humans, with the minimum aid of brooms, metal scarpers and buckets. This practice was officially supposed to have been banned in 1993 by the Government of India. Official lapses and apathy apart, the surveys by the activists working against this practice show that even now over 14 lakhs of scavengers are still suffering ignominy and nearly 95% of these workers are women. These scavengers are the untouchables section of dalits, who have been trapped in this occupation as a birth based work. The States have not taken the act of abolition of this practice seriously and even till 1999-2000 many a States had not notified the act. It is in this light that the social action group Safai Karmachari Andolan has given a call for abolition of this atrocity by the end of 2010.

The manual scavenging is an offshoot of the untouchability practiced in India. Many feudal societies have seen the birth based hierarchy of caste but the Indian caste system has been legitimized through Holy Scriptures to make it a religious phenomenon. Many a factors have contributed to emergence of caste; Race, class and religion. Currently the race theory does not find much favor with the serious scholars of caste. The major contributing factors have been the economic and religious. In his famous phrase Ambedkar points out that “caste is not a division of labor; it is a division of laborers”. He puts more emphasis on the ideological and religious factors. In his analysis these factors are interwoven as civilizational factors which influenced and resulted in social changes leading to formation of caste system.

The evolution of caste society was a slow process. Its continuance was secured by making it hereditary. The primitive taboo on eating together and intermarriage became caste law, which in turn led to marriage limits and elaborate rules of endogamy and exogamy. The continuance of caste system depended on vast network of sub-castes, which were connected with occupations. This sub-caste – jati – came to have more relevance and became the basis of functioning of Hindu society. As caste became hereditary with close connection between occupation and sub-caste, it resulted in an automatic check on individual moving up in the hierarchy of castes

Untouchablity is the outcome of this caste system and manual scavenging is the subhuman expression of the same, that being amongst the worst of atrocities perpetrated by the upper caste on the low castes. This is the key concept inherent in purity-pollution, and rebirth theories which were used to enslave the low caste and keep them tied to the subhuman occupation. Khalid Akhtar (Hardnews Media, March 2008) points out that the earliest references to it are found in Narada Samhita and Vajasaneyi Samhita. In Narada Samhita one of the 15 duties listed for untouchables, one is the removal of human excreta. In Vajasaneyi Samhita, Chandalas are referred to as slaves engaged in the disposal of human excreta. Even other dalits look down upon them and all the avenue of social interaction in any form were denied to them.

Excavations at Lotha in Gujarat show that Harappan civilization did have water based sanitation system. The toilets were connected by drains and had manholes and chambers. With the decline of Harappan civilization this technology went into oblivion.

The system of manual scavenging continued in medieval times as well. While the Muslim kings did introduce different techniques at places. As such the communal politics, as is its wont, is trying to propagate that since the Muslims used Burqua, women could not go out to jungles, they introduced manual scavenging. This is another way of putting the blame of internal problems to external source. This is far from truth. Observation and research into the Mughal forts’ sanitation system shows that they had small outlets in the bathing rooms of Mughal forts which were used as toilets. The waste from these toilets was carried by gravitational force to the ramparts with the help of water. This technique has been seen in the Red Fort in Delhi, in the palaces of Rajasthan, in Hampi, Karnataka and in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

The British did claim that they have come here, carrying the “White Man’s Burden” of civilizing the East, but as far as retrograde social practices were concerned they were unconcerned about those. In the case of manual scavenging they put their seal of approval on this by systematizing it and creating the posts of scavengers in army, railways, municipalities and big towns. Barring few places they did not put the sewer lines in most of the places, as they observed that already the system of scavenging is in place. Due to industrial changes, end of craftsmanship and pauperization of a section of society, some of them forced to join in this work.

Ambedkars’ rebellion against caste and his prescription on ‘Annihilation of caste’ and Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts to eradicate untouchabilty, experiments with new designs of toilets, had a minimal effect on the total social situation, as the social transformation has been painfully slow. After partition the untouchables from Pakistan were not permitted to come to India and Indian Government did not try much for the safe passage of this group to India. And here the situations continued as it has been due to which the life was a total humiliation for this section of society persisted. During last many decades the pressure of the social movements is forcing the State authorities to abolish this practice and rehabilitate the scavengers. As usual the State response has been half baked and there is a lack of effectivity in the same. The step of the social movements to do all, advocacy, campaign and other pressures, to ensure that this practice is put to
rest is very significant.

One knows that the popular opinion and efforts of all sensitive people to end this are needed at this point of time to remove this blot on Indian society, irrespective of its sanction by the Holy Scriptures and traditional practices. Enough is enough, this atrocity on a section of our society has to be stopped forthwith, they need to be rahabilitated to the life of dignity, come what may.