If you had to pick one, which is the cleaning chore you hate the most? Is it cleaning bathrooms and clogged household drains? Forget cleaning, can you even to stand near an open manhole for a few minutes, or peep into it once? You can’t, nor can I. But have you ever thought about those massive numbers of sanitation workers who clean latrine pits, manholes toilets, and urinals clogged with dirt and faeces everyday– all with their bare hands? They are called manual scavengers. There is nothing dehumanizing that cleaning the created by others. Sadly, people are cleaning shit for a living, and everything about it is heart-wrenching. They spend more than of their earnings on alcohol, get trapped in poverty, and face heavy discrimination everywhere.
Despite being outlawed, manual scavenging is the predominant occupation of a large number of people, and results in the untimely deaths of many workers, mainly due to carbon monoxide poisoning. As many as 59 sanitation workers have died in Bangalore city alone between 2008 and 2016. Innumerable deaths have gone unreported and nobody makes a hue and cry. Or, we continually remain apathetic about the entire issue. Manual scavenging is both dangerous and demeaning. It’s banned but only on paper. This dangerous occupation is inherently cast-based. Dalits and low-castes are locked into this illegal practice. According to a 2011 Census, nearly 8 lakh people are involved in manual scavenging. They are poorly rewarded and often endure several health issues, as they work in the most hazardous conditions.
With buckets, brooms, and baskets, they clean drainage holes and dry toilets on a daily basis. They have to literally strip down to their underpants, and are not given any protective gears, gloves, or gumboots to wear before clambering into stinky manholes. Alcoholism is deep-rooted among manual scavengers. Wondering why? No one in absolute senses would get close to a smelly toilet or manhole brimming with filth. Alcohol dulls senses and makes it easier to enter into dirty toilets and manholes. Skin diseases are common among manual scavengers, and many are afflicted with fatal leptospirosis, tuberculosis, asthma, and hepatitis as well.
Irrespective of the announcement of several governmental and non-governmental cleanliness campaigns, nothing significant has been done so far to address the plight of these poor sanitation workers who are mostly illiterate and don’t have any other source of income. No development initiative or cleanliness mission can be successfully accomplished when these sanitation workers, dubbed as manual scavengers, are forced to do the most hazardous and degrading job to make ends meet.
No manual scavenger willingly agrees to do this utmost unhygienic job. They too have to eke out a living like us. It’s high time to end this pernicious practice and rehabilitate manual scavengers. With a stringent ban, many people will go jobless. But availability of alternative livelihoods and financial assistance can help them gain confidence and live in a better and dignified manner.