Thousands of poor, low-caste Indians are still forced to use their bare hands to clean human waste from sewers and open roads across the country, despite laws prohibiting such work, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.
Deep-rooted caste discrimination patterns have kept manual scavengers from escaping their traditional role as waste cleaners, HRW said in a report.
Scavenging is mostly carried out by a sub-group of the Dalits, the so-called ‘untouchables’ caste. Scenes of men in just their underwear being lowered into sewers or women clearing out dry toilets remain common in many Indian cities.
The workers are often impoverished, shunned by society and forbidden from even touching Indians from other castes, or even their food.
That discrimination blocks them from other jobs and opportunities, Human Rights Watch said.
“When you have no one to clean, only then do you build a proper toilet. That’s not happening here, because there is a community that can be made to clean it,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of HRW.
“It’s just so appalling, so no one is going to dispute that manual scavenging must end. But then, they need to make it happen.”
There is no exact figure for the number of Indians still practicing manual scavenging, earning as little as 1 rupee (about 2 U.S. cents) a day, or sometimes only their daily bread.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network estimates 1.3 million people are stuck in what it calls the “forced labor” or “slavery” of manual scavenging. The government, which consistently cites figures far lower than those given by civil society groups, said last week that it had counted only 11,000 scavengers in 23 of India’s 29 states, though it had yet to survey the other six states.
Human Rights Watch estimates there are at least hundreds of thousands manually cleaning human excrement, Ganguly said, “especially if you also count those cleaning train tracks , clogged drains or septic tanks. No one is counting them.”
Typically, they use their hands or small straw brooms to gather the waste into cane baskets, which they then carry away on their heads.
In terms of toilets alone, there are about 9.6 million pit latrines being cleared despite laws banning dry toilets as well as manual scavenging itself, according to an estimate given earlier this year by India’s Supreme Court.
The government, however, has given a lower figure of 2.4 million dry latrines.
More than half of India’s population do not have access to a toilet and open defecation is widespread, with the resulting diarrheal diseases claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands, particularly children, every year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made sanitation a selling a primary tenet of his election campaign this year, declaring that India needs “toilets not temples.”
The HRW report also said that many ordinary Indians remain unaware of laws against using people to clean human waste.
The report, titled “Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India”, interviewed more than 100 current and manual scavengers from Gujarat Maharahstra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Rikke Nohrling, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network, told Reuters: “This report serves as an illustration of one of the worst manifestations of caste-based discrimination in South Asia, inflicting human rights violations in all spheres of life including work, health, education and safety,” said Rikke Nöhrlind, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
“The report also shows how the Indian government and officials must step up to the plate to end this practice as far too little has been done.”
Human Rights Watch called on officials to get serious about ending the practice of manual scavenging.
“It’s a solvable issue. This thing can go away. There is the money; there are programs devised. It all just has to be implemented,” Ganguly said.
(Edited by Viji Alles)