Officially prohibited by law since 1993, the evil of manual scavenging (a caste-based occupation involving the manual removal of untreated human excreta by hand) continues unabated in India.
A derogatory practice confined to people belonging to the most backward castes, the occupation provides no precautionary or safety measures for its workers and poses health hazards that outweigh the meagre wages these workers get. For the most part those working as manual scavengers remain undocumented, underpaid and exploited.
Recently, however, the Delhi government put out its first official list of manual scavengers in the city, and the list includes a postgraduate, seven high school graduates and six women. The list was generated out of a survey conducted by a government-appointed committee in February this year.
Of the 36 identified, most of them come from the Valmiki and Muslim communities. The Shahdara District Administration in Delhi under Deputy Commissioner K Mahesh has taken special note of this because of the 36 identified manual scavengers, 28 come from areas under their jurisdiction.
Given their desperate need for an alternative source of livelihood, the Shahdara district administration yesterday launched a first-of-its-kind three-month skill training programme in collaboration with the Centre for Advocacy and Research, Action Aid, Mahila Pragati Manch and other civil society organisations.
From Monday to Friday, they will sit through a four-hour skill development class. After the course concludes, the 28 will have to take an exam conducted by the Domestic Worker Sector Skill Council.
What courses are the participants taking?
According to The Indian Express, 15 have chosen to undergo the course in housekeeping, while two each for driving and gardening respectively. Another five workers will learn the basics of computer applications, while one will do a course in nursing.
“You will be working in hospitals, hotels, and restaurants. You can also choose to render services as caretakers of patients at homes. Some of you who have BCom degrees can also be given an accounting job,” said Vinay Stephen of the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society (SMMSSS) in the inaugural class, according to this Press Trust of India report.
“This line of work is synonymous with Valmikis. This is what we have been doing for centuries. We look forward to the training, which may help our future generations shed the disgrace,” said Veena, one of those identified in the survey, along with her husband Suresh, to The Indian Express.
Having said that, there are still concerns that the district-wise survey conducted under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, did not do a thorough job in identifying manual scavengers in the city.
In fact, Rajendra Pal Gautam, the Social Welfare Minister of Delhi, said as much, and expressed his desire for a “proper survey.”
Besides Shahdara and Northeast Delhi, no other district reported the presence of manual scavengers, an odd claim considering how ubiquitous their presence is in the national capital.
Speaking to The Better India, Kumar Mahesh, the Deputy Commissioner of Shahdara district, said:
“The practice of manual scavenging, a caste-based occupation, is a product of caste base prejudice and poverty. Collaborating with government and civil society, we hope to ensure that these citizens get the necessary employment and respect.”
When ‘The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013’ came into force, which doubled down on the ban established in 1993, the government first recognised the presence of 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states. The figure was a gross underrepresentation, considering that there are 740,078 households across India where human waste is physically removed by a person from a dry latrine according to the 2011 Census.
Not to mention that fact there are sewers, septic tanks and railway platforms from where manual scavengers clean up human excreta. Moreover, the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 stated that there are 182,505 families in rural India engaged in this dehumanising form of work.The Centre has so far counted 53, 236 manual scavengers in India–a four-fold increase from the official number of 2017.
“While we are talking about cutting-edge technologies sitting in the national capital, there are manual scavengers cleaning gutters in the city. We have come here with solutions. This is a pilot district, and we will take to entire Delhi,” said Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, speaking to the press yesterday.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)