Even as the pandemic takes over the country, the precariousness of those damned to do manual scavenging is making them the most vulnerable to the virus, as they are placed as essential frontline workers against the pandemic without any tenable safeguards.
The manual carrying of human faeces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery.
WHO ARE MANUAL SCAVENGERS?
‘Manual scavengers’, or people engaged or employed in manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of human excreta in an insanitary latrine, or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, on a railway track, or in such other spaces or premises represent the most marginalized sections of our society.
Pooja Lakhan, a sanitation worker in Jodhpur, Rajasthan was asked to dispose of the dead body of a COVID-19 patient without adequate PPEs and know-how. Lack of uniformity in wages, meagre availability of adequate PPE, no access to any social security scheme and no certainty of employment along with continued exposure to the disease make their lives frightful.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 calls for a total ban on the practice of Manual scavenging but the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) v Union of India noted the presence of 9.6 million insanitary latrines making it evident that the practice even after a statutory ban is difficult to uproot.
In the past half-decade, the country has ignored the deaths of over 400 manual scavengers as there have been no legal ramifications to the government over these deaths, and the earth-shattering ignominy faced by these citizens suggests that they are still the most vulnerable class.Even as the pandemic takes over the country, the precariousness of those damned to do manual scavenging is making them the most vulnerable to the virus, as they are placed as essential frontline workers against the pandemic without any tenable safeguards.
INCREASED MARGINALIZATION DURING COVID-19 PHASE
Long-time exposure to all kinds of possible toxic gases and substances leads to their death either by asphyxiation in some cases, or otherwise becomes the cause of extremely weak immunity, endangering them to a multitude of diseases.
The average lifespan of a manual scavenger in India is 40–45 years – much lower than the national average – a direct cause of the hazards related to their occupation. During a global health emergency, a particular group working on the frontline with prior exposure to a variety of diseases makes a perfect recipe for a future crisis, which will remain invisible because their lives don’t matter.
In addition, to their existing propensity to contract the disease, the lamentable preparations to fight the virus compound the risk to their lives and the fact of indispensability of Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”) for them requires no more attention. However, the continuous struggle of the health staff of one of the most reputed hospitals of the country indicates the crises the manual scavengers must be going through to procure PPE.
The recent surge in the generation of bio-medical waste in the form of gloves, masks, and other PPEs makes them more susceptible to contract the virus while working with these viruses carrying waste material mostly disposed of by people without following the proper procedure.
An average manual scavenger earns between Rs 10 to Rs 500 per day, their meager income reflects the economic crises they encounter on a day-to-day basis. In urban settlements, these people have greater vulnerability to the virus because of the stinky, small, close-quartered spaces they tend to occupy as a residence. The idea of social distancing to keep the virus away seems like an implausible expectation from them.
The pandemic has also posed serious mental health risks for the scavenger women who make up 95% of the scavenger population. It is to be noted that women in India have suffered from very harrowing societal prejudice, with a steep rise in unemployment rate leading to people getting locked up in homes with constantly growing frustration and uncertainty. Historically, women have been facing a lot in the form of age-old prejudices, rebukes, even getting subjected to violence by males. A sharp spike in domestic violence incidents manifests that the majority of the manual scavenging population must have been facing dreadful emotional distress during the pandemic.
The pandemic with all its might to challenges the lives of these Manual Scavengers who have been blind-eyed by the privileged from times immemorial, the legislature and Judiciary both have called for banning the practice in its entirety but the end to the problem still seems far even after 27 years since the first legislation that declared the practice illegal. Manual Scavengers suffer from the persistent problem of denial on part of the state, the dereliction of the duty to prevent, protect and rehabilitate them has been committed by almost all the states of the country. In some states officially there is no presence of Manual Scavengers at all, however, the Safai Karamchari Andolan still estimates the existence of 26 lakh dry latrines in the country. This denial on part of the government makes it difficult to chart the extent of the problem.
It comes as a shocker that despite engagement in manual scavenging being a cognizable and non-bailable offence, Indian railways still remains the largest employer of manual scavengers. The evasion of liability by the Governments and individuals at various levels has led to an astonishing zero conviction rate under the manual scavenging law in the past 27 years.
The recent 1.7 trillion package announced by the Finance Minister also misses out on providing anything specifically for the Sanitation Workers to uplift them, the package keeps them at par with the other poor people of the country who are not exposed to caste and gender-based intersectional violence in the form of manual scavenging.
A social audit must be conducted wherein political and administrative will should be displayed to identify the extent of the problem so the scope of evasion and denial should be eliminated, and this can be done with the help of the statutory body, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. Rehabilitation and not liberation seems like a panacea for the problem at hand. Effective rehabilitation for Manual scavengers can be ensured only if it is linked with social security schemes like MGNREGA, which will ensure a minimum level of sustainable employment.
Manual Scavengers should also be provided with vocational training to ensure self-employment opportunities in the future. Other than that provision for their healthcare should be made because of their existent health crises due to weak immunity. Incentivization for eliminating open dry latrines will also help in doing away with the inhuman practice. Use of technology for developing alternatives to be employed in place of septic tanks and manholes will also expedite the process of emancipating Manual scavengers. As an immediate measure, all the employed Sanitation workers during the pandemic should get universal and adequate access to PPEs and other safety devices, so that they are prevented from contracting the virus. The practice is deep-rooted and it requires concentrated resolve on part of all the organs of the state with cooperation and contribution from non-state actors to be solved, otherwise we, as a developing nation in the 21st century, will continue to share the guilt of compromising with the fundamental and human rights of many unheard voices.
This article was first published on The GCLS Blog
Cover Image Credits: Gayathri N.