Manual scavenging deaths in India, realities and the right and wrong questions to ask

I am mainly talking of manual scavenging as people getting into sewage systems to clear them of blockages and such – because it is the most dangerous kind. Physically carrying excreta away or removing dead animals and such is also manual scavenging, and it may be humiliating but is unlikely to kill the way a modern sewage system can and does (unless of course you’re a dalit removing a dead cow and run into her sons).

Another death in manual scavenging. People routinely die in sewage. Another outrage against manual scavenging. What a hideous death! As though dying in sewage is somehow worse than making a living working in it on a daily basis. Perhaps it is. It is a symbol of the extreme of living with filth to the point of not being able to live at all. It is a symbol of the oppression of castes. It is illegal. Humans should not do manual scavenging. It is not safe or against dignity, etc.

A country of so many people poops a lot. It has to go somewhere. Us elites have these nice systems where we flush it down and it goes to somewhere out of our sight and mind. Others have a bit more thinking involved with more conscious choices like composting it for fertilizer or producing bio-gas. Still others flush it out of sight only for it to emerge in a drain on the outside of the toilet. Still others have pits in the ground that get filled with time and new pits are dug for use. Still others fertilize the railway tracks with their deposits.

All these methods have one thing in common. Manual scavenging (unless you go to a place no one cleans).

There is quite a bit of maintenance work that goes on around human excreta and acceptance levels for it vary. Some, as Rupa Subramanian so eloquently put it consider those touching the excreta to be irreparably filthy from the contact. This, indeed is the basis of the caste system, where people who traditionally do work considered unclean are considered unclean themselves. Note, the caste system was formed way before soap and disinfectants and many have refused to live outside that outdated mindset. Is there merit in separating the food, health and other public contact from people who have extensively touched contaminants in the absence of methods of sanitization? Definitely. Do you have to be an asshole about it? No, not in any century. Do you have to be paranoid about uncleanliness in the age of effective soaps, disinfectants and disposable barriers to prevent infections? Only if you get a high from judging people as inferior.

Most of the regular humans, even when not actively engaged in troubleshooting excreta management problems aren’t that extremely Rupa and will casually spritz some toilet cleaner around the bowl, scrub it clean for further use (with a long handled brush) and wash our hands when done. Others have had to face blocked toilets in an emergency (let it flow out and cover the floor or deal with it and save the floor?) and valuables dropped into toilet bowls by accident (that is why your mom tells you not to use your phone in the loo).

Most of us are not too paranoid about this and will generally do the needful and address our distaste with various levels of vigor ranging from a casual swipe down the back of your jeans (you didn’t need that visual, did you? I saw someone do it once and thought you should know.) to a complete hot water bath with multiple applications of soap and dettol in the water and throwing away of clothes worn.

On the other end of this spectrum are those that deal with excreta professionally, on a daily basis. I once saw a man standing in a sewer casually ask his colleague standing outside to hand him a bottle of water to drink. Doesn’t sound that alarming, does it with water in the bottle still being clean, till you realize these people can’t afford disposable bottles of mineral water – they likely fill their bottle at whatever tap daily. (I bet you didn’t need that visual either)

Modern plumbing has brought with it the need to maintain the system of what goes on once we have flushed things out of sight. And if there is one place women must solidly shoulder condemnation, it is here. Among the biggest reasons of clogged sewage is menstrual cloths and sanitary napkins flushed out of sight and made someone else’s problem to handle. Ask anyone who lived on the ground floor when sanitary napkins were newly introduced to the market and flushed away by those who lived on the floors above them. It is less common among us educated folks now that we know they clog sewage. But there are still plenty of embarrassed women who’d rather someone fished their menstrual evidence out of the sewage than them walking out of the toilet or leaving it on the floor for someone to know that they menstruate!

How many? Lots. Ask manual scavengers.

Of course, women can’t be solely blamed for blocked sewage. Plenty of other things get into it too. Ill designed drains are eagerly looking for stuff to trap, it seems, which is why some sewers need cleaning more regularly than others. Some quite inexplicably. I have seen it and would definitely torture you with the details, if I could identify them. There is also necessary maintenance, dead rats and what not. It is quite an educational experience to stand and watch when blocked sewage gets cleaned. And for every 100 people who gingerly tiptoe past the grey-black oozing mess that gets shoveled out of the drain, there is one person wading in it fearlessly, shoveling it out, till the contents flow once more.

Coming to the point on manual scavenging

I have come to the conclusion that it is necessary. Unless of course we are willing to let civilization collapse in on itself and live in the filth they produce. It is necessary till it is no longer necessary. Which will be a long, long time in a country with a shortage of funds and power and an abundance of very poor and unemployed people.

What the condemnation of manual scavenging misses is the functuinality of their recommendations. “Stop manual scavenging” is an answer only if you live in a place where the drains don’t clog and don’t crap anywhere else. The fact is that sewage systems can get messed up in complicated ways in India. The need is to reduce problems in the entire chain that leads to the block that requires a skilled human to physically troubleshoot it.

How to “end” manual scavenging?

I am not sure it can be completely eliminated. The most developed of countries will need people willing to brave the sewers when something goes wrong. It is exactly what happens in India, except things go wrong more often. The key is to reduce instances where humans are put at risk and provide a dignified and sustainable existence. I have some ideas.

Prevent blockages to avoid sending manual scavengers when things go wrong

It is surprising how little attention robust sewage systems get when it comes to preventing manual scavenging. Manual scavenging has become a function of the system rather than service support and troubleshooting. This is hazardous and unsustainable.

Upgrade sewage systems

Create improved sewage systems designed to clog less and transport waste more efficiently. Process waste locally rather than transporting it over long distances to dump into rivers and the sea. Use technologies that allow recycling of human waste into fuel or fertilizer. Employ manual scavengers in their production so that they earn a lot more (both fuel and fertilizers are profitable products) and will still troubleshoot the fewer problems that arise.

Implement alternative methods of disposing sewage

If excreta will remain in place to clog the system without adequate water, the system is bound to fail where water availability is a problem. Develop and implement alternative methods of sewage disposal that require less water to maintain.

But this will be a time-consuming evolution for the country. Till then, while manual scavenging is inevitable…

Encourage responsible use of the sewage systems

Broadcast public service messages on not introducing objects that could prevent the efficient functioning of the sewage system. Lay stress on not flushing menstrual cloths, sanitary napkins, toilet paper and other non-excreta objects into the system.

Recognize manual scavenging as an important service

When it comes to keeping people healthy and safe, manual scavengers are probably at least, if not more important than healthcare workers. However, they face far more risks and are accorded far less dignity in their profession. This lack of respect exposes them to additional risks that can be avoided.

Manual scavenging is a profession necessary for society

People employed in this profession should not be considered any less than the far less life-essential professions like teacher or postman. Their income must reflect that. Their acceptance in society must reflect that.

Offer hazard pay and benefits

Manual scavengers face enormous health hazards so that the rest of the society is not forced to face them. Their profession brings with it physical and psychological stress as well as increased health risks. They should be accorded free healthcare (including at least some portion of it in their local private hospitals that they help keep safe as CSR). They should be offered hazard pay to help them address expenses they face because of their profession. They should have life insurance by default.

Treat all deaths on the job where inadequate protection is found as manslaughter

Manual scavengers who are not offered adequate protective equipment and die on the job should be considered to be killed, not accidentally dead. Just like a soldier shot in combat dead due to a lack of a bulletproof vest would be the responsibility of the government. This must result in convictions that include jail terms.

An argument I heard by a pro-government person recently on the subject was that “they will start asking for all kinds of perks or claim to be unprotected at work”. Let me put it like this. If they ask for perfume because of the smell, and the employer isn’t really economically capable of catering to such demands, it isn’t going to result in dead people. Treating deaths due to lack of protection at work as manslaughter will obviously mean life-essential protection, unless anyone thinks people will die for want of perfume to make the government look bad.

Caste and manual scavenging

Manual scavenging in India is traditionally tied in with specific castes that are considered to be the lowest in the social hierarchy. This is because manual scavenging is not profitable, so they are not rich enough to influence anyone. I believe that improving dignity and income for the profession will automatically have the result of the entry of other castes. In my view, it is a superior way of indirectly detaching specific castes from specific humiliating work as well, without making it explicitly about caste.

Please leave your ideas in the comments.

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