Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked October 2, 2020, Gandhi Jayanti, as the day he would declare India “manual scavenging free”.
When Bezwada Wilson, convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an advocacy group, learnt of the decision, he submitted data to the government on manual scavengers, who, even after Swachh Bharat, were still cleaning dry and insanitary latrines.
In September, at a meeting, chief secretaries from various states were asked if it was still feasible to declare India free of manual scavenging, the outlawed practice of cleaning sewers, septic tanks, railways tracks and other receptacles of human and other waste.
That was when Wilson told the officials “to imagine a TV screen, split in the middle, on the one side the PM declaring India manual-scavenger free, on the other side the images of women, working as manual scavengers”. Faced with the evidence collated by Wilson, the government decided to postpone its declaration.
The ease with which the government chose to look away from the reality of manual scavenging in much of rural India is because it is work that is taken for granted. While the work of cleaning choked sewage chambers and gutters is usually assigned to men, the cleaning of dry toilets and the ferrying of excreta is usually the work of women.
This is the last of a five-part series that explores how manual scavenging, primarily a profession for Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, endures in India despite being outlawed in 2013.
There is a term for manually cleaning and carrying faeces in almost every Indian language – “maila dhona” in Hindi, “maila baachivavru” in Kannada, “maila vahanaare” in Marathi, “tho-otti” in Malayalam.
Across rural India, manual scavenging remains the most degrading of practices, as women from Dalit castes continue using their hands to clean and scrape faeces and carry it away from upper-caste homes. The other major employer of women as manual scavengers is the Indian Railways.
The government has not released specific data on women manual scavengers. Their overall figure –66,692 – has already been challenged by activists who call it a denial of reality. According to Wilson, the Railways alone employ five times this number and the overall figure exceeds one million.
He based his claim on figures collated by the Safai Karamchari Andolan. The Supreme Court has in the past recognised the importance of the data collected by the organisation.
Six months after Modi’s date for the end of manual scavenging in India, tens of thousands of women continue to be engaged in the practice of manually cleaning dry and insanitary latrines.
This is the story of three of them.
Brutality for refusing work
December 30, 2017 – a day Guddi Devi and her family find hard to forget. The prospects of change swept into their life briefly and vanished just as soon.
At 40, Guddi Devi had spent 25 years of her life working as a manual scavenger, going house to house, cleaning filth and excreta from the toilets. The toilets were often “dry latrines”, without water.
Kurseda is a village typical of Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh. Amidst the scrub landscape, water is scarce, and embedded caste hierarchies are the basis for unequal landholdings. Guddi Devi and her family from the Valmiki Dalit caste owned no land but her work took her to the estates of large zamindars, with anywhere from 30 acres to 60 acres. Her daughter Anjali would accompany her. The work was meant to be passed down to her, as it was passed down to Guddi from her mother.
Over the years, people had tried to modernise their toilets or construct new ones. But in these badly designed toilets with flushes that rarely worked, faecal material still had to be cleaned by hand, except that clearing wet faeces was harder than picking it up dry.
“I do not need to explain that, it is quite evident what happens when you have got liquid faecal material piled up in the bucket on your head – it begins to drip on to your face,” Guddi said. In the many testimonies of manual scavengers, this recurring detail underlines the repulsive nature of their daily work, unchanged for centuries.
On that date in December, three years ago, Guddi and Anjali skipped their rounds to work at the home of a zamindar, a landlord, hosting a triyodarshi, a ritual feast, held on the 13th day after a relative’s death. As a large number of guests had been invited, Guddi and others from her community spent the morning sweeping, cleaning utensils and toilets.
Just as she was returning to her house, one of the village’s biggest zamindars, Deep Singh Sengar, accosted her. Angered she had not come to clean the toilets on his estate that day, he began beating her. Villagers who had gathered there saw Sengar pick up buckets full of the excreta and throw it at Guddi and her daughter who was just 13 at the time.
Senger managed to drag Guddi and her daughter to his house where he forcibly made them clean the latrines, abusing them throughout and then thrashing them again until some villagers intervened. None of those villagers wanted their identities revealed, not then, when a local reporter filed a story on the incident and not now, three years later.
A team from the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch, a network of youth organisations working on constitutional and Dalit rights in 700 villages in the region, conducted a detailed fact-finding report on the incident.
Authorities in denial
Thirty-one-year old Kuldeep Kumar Baudh, convenor, remembered the extensive conversations they had with villagers, witnesses and Guddi’s family, “We were shocked at the brutality and convinced Guddi to file a case under the Manual Scavenger Act, 2013.” (The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act).
Guddi agreed and a complaint was filed at the Gohan police station naming Dilip Sengar and his accomplices. A week later, she withdrew the application. She had been threatened and intimidated. “You will leave but I have to stay in my village,” she told Baudh and his colleagues.
Baudh said this was a “turning point”. Members of the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch began an exhaustive process of identifying families still engaged in manual scavenging. Their first study, completed in January 2018, identified as many as 276 people still engaged in manual scavenging, in just the two blocks they had surveyed – Mahewa and Kaduara.
All were women, all were Valmikis.
When the findings were shared with the Jalaun district magistrate, he summarily dismissed them. “He told us there was no manual scavenging as Swachh Bharat had removed dry latrines,” recalled Baudh.
Baudh and his team decided to use clauses in the 2013 Act which allowed manual scavengers to self-declare. The Act set up a survey committee in every district to track cases of manual scavenging while the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation vets each application.
Once the declaration was found valid, National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation was responsible for the rehabilitation, beginning with Rs 40,000 given to each manual scavenger followed by skill training for new employment with a stipend of Rs 3,000 a month for at least two years.
Of the 276 people Baudh’s team identified as manual scavengers, only 93 wanted to self-declare. The others said they feared repercussions. Incredibly, the district administration found only one self-declaration form to be valid.
“This was unbelievable for us, there were forms with details, there was even photographic evidence, and the local media had captured so much of this work visually,” said Baudh. “We knew we would have to protest.”
Over the next few months, the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch and the women scavengers took their protests to Lucknow. On World Human Rights Day, December 10, 2018, The protest was widely covered by the state media. It led to three self-declaration camps being held across Jalaun by the government on a single day in 2019.
More than 1,000 women came forward, evidence in hand, to self-declare themselves as manual scavengers. The administration accepted 629 claims and gave 40,000 rupees to each of the families. No other follow-up of any kind was done.
“That was the end of the matter when it should have been the beginning,” said Baudh. “What is Rs 40,000 in itself going to achieve?” Those who could not make it on the one day the camp was held, gave their forms to Baudh and his team to post to the district office. A year and a half later there has been no response.
“How can a law work when the agencies meant to execute it become its violators?” asked Baudh. The 2013 act requires block level officials to monitor and identify illegal practices. “Forget using the act to prosecute or punish, there is no will to actually accept and act on manual scavenging.”
Baudh’s organisation has verifiable evidence that over 2,000 women are still engaged as manual scavengers in the Jalaun district. The actual figure is likely to be much higher. He feels, even more strongly now, the need to keep doing work that links people to government welfare schemes and makes them aware of the laws.
Even as he forced the government to acknowledge the reality of what was happening, he remained haunted by the fact that Guddi Devi was not among the 629 people acknowledged as manual scavengers by the government.
Still living with fear, Guddi Devi wants no media attention, does not want to be spoken to, does not want her picture taken.
Hard to escape
Fifteen years ago, when M Lokamma was 25, she and her husband Hari moved from Averahalli village to Tumakuru town, about 70-km from Bengaluru, hoping to leave behind their lives as Dalits from the Madiga caste.
“In the village, we would be ordered to clear carcasses, clean drains, gutters or sweep the open defecation spots on the outskirts of the village,” Lokamma recalled. “Often we were not paid any money, only given left-over food, perhaps rarely a small portion of rice. We are not allowed to even enter upper-caste homes through the front door. We are served water or food indented plates and glasses kept outside especially for us.”
But the stigma of their caste followed them here too.
“My husband and I are not literate and when people know we are Madiga, if we are given work, it is usually that of cleaning toilets,” Lokamma told Article 14. Her husband cleaned clogged gutters, sewers and septic tanks while Lokamma felt relieved to have got a regular salaried job cleaning toilets at a girl’s hostel in Tumakuru’s Danah Nagar.
Between her monthly wages of Rs 2,500 and Hari’s earnings, they were able to manage until the sudden lockdown, announced by Prime Minister Modi in March 2020. The girl’s hostel was closed, the students sent away and Lokamma laid off.
The couple struggled, living on subsidised grains and food distributed by welfare organisations. Work finally began to pick up only by November 2020. According to Lokamma, “A lot of other migrant workers had not returned so there was a backlog for us. The savukaar (upper caste) people do not do dirty work.”
On January 17, Lokamma was called to clean a toilet that had been left dirty through 10 months of the pandemic. “I told the owners it would require cleaning with machines since the toilet was coated with hardened excreta but they began yelling,” she said. “They brought a bottle of acid and insisted I clean it.”
She described how the fumes from the acid reacted with the faecal waste and filled the bathroom. Her eyes stung but the upper-caste men and women stood outside the toilet yelling at her to finish the work. “At one point the bottle in my left hand tipped over and burnt my hand,” she said. “The pain was so much that I keeled over but they mocked me for making excuses. Only when I broke down, showing them my blistered darkened hand did they reluctantly allow me to go.”
She was not paid for the work, “They said not a single paisa as I had not completed the work, though not much was left to do.”
The past three months have been a struggle. The treatment for the arm continues, eating into their paltry savings. Unable to work, Lokamma needs help with even having a bath or tying her hair.
In theory, she should have had several legal options.
Under the stringent provisions of the 2013 Act, anyone forcing an individual to undertake manual scavenging can be fined a sum of Rs 10 lakh, face a prison sentence of five years or both. The slurs directed at her by those who employed her also count as a serious violation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
The Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samithi, which works on rehabilitation of manual scavengers in Karnataka, helped Lokamma draft a complaint that was submitted at the Tumakuru police station on January 17. After repeated follow-ups by the Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samithi team, the police finally accepted the complaint on January 25.
“They are treating this as an accident, refusing to register the offence under the Manual Scavenger Act,” Rakshita, coordinator for Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samithi at Tumakuru, told Article 14. “We have been writing to all district and state authorities to follow-up. Though the Act clearly delineates the chain of responsibilities, government agencies keep passing the buck.”
It took Rakshita a long time to counsel the couple to file a complaint. Lokamma and Hari, for good reason, had little expectation from the system, “When we were in the village, our thatched roof had collapsed so we had gone to the district office to apply for an Indira Awas Yojana,” Rakshita said. “The official there told us to get lost, said he would put us in prison as we were lying. We are nothing to them so why will they rehabilitate us?”
How Railways violates law
Erode Junction in Tamil Nadu is one of the busiest railway junctions on the Southern Railway, with 265 mail, express and passenger trains passing through each day.
The station has four platforms, 12 tracks and railway authorities estimate it caters to more than 40,000 people a day. Only 45 people have been employed to ensure cleanliness and hygiene at the station. Thirty of them are women, all from the Arunthatiyar community, a Dalit caste traditionally tasked with manual scavenging.
Among them is 47-year-old D Mohanna, who has been working as a contractual manual scavenger since 2010. “I was earlier working in upper-caste homes as a domestic help,” she said. “Someone who wanted my job revealed my caste and I was forced to leave.”
“At least here, as a manual scavenger, no one will make me leave just because I am Dalit,” she said, with a touch of the dark humour that has kept her going through hardship and personal trauma.
Before his death, Mohanna’s father had also been a manual scavenger and it was through his acquaintances that she found the job. The initial experience of cleaning faeces and muck from blocked drains, toilets and tracks left her nauseous. “I had no choice but to make peace with it since this is what ensures we do not go hungry,” she said.
She earns Rs 9,000 a month, though her husband, a violent alcoholic, usually drinks a few thousand away, “People see the money I earn, no one’s bothered about the work involved or how it marks us as sub-human.”
On paper, her work timings are 7 am to 5 pm but in reality, the length of her shift is decided by train arrivals and departures. If a particular train is delayed, the contractor makes them wait to ensure the tracks are cleaned after the train departs.
“We hear the threat that our contracts can be terminated at any point,” she said. “It is a way to ensure we do hours of overtime without a squeak of a complaint, which is what we do.”
In early 2000 the Indian Railways, starting with the Eastern sector, began to outsource sanitation work to private contractors. Karuppu Samy, a coordinator with Rights Education and Development Centre, who has worked with manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu since 2001 said, “The contractual system allows the Railways to deny they are employing manual scavengers.” Having seen up close how women like Mohanna work in railway stations, Samy called it “nothing more than manual scavenging with an apron”.
Some of the daily tolls of this work are visible on Mohanna’s body – bruises, scratches and a stubborn fungus infection that has discoloured her skin all the way up to her knee. The boots the women were given to work were ill-fitting and difficult to wear with saris. When the women complained, the contractor simply took them away, leaving them to wear their chappals, which brings them in close contact with garbage and excreta.
The Railways have long promised to mechanise the cleaning process. An early step was the introduction of high-pressure water jets to clean the tracks. This has since been used by officials to argue that their workers are not “manual scavengers”.
Mohanna mocked the claim. “Tell them the water jets do not often work and even when they do there is no pressure intense enough to get some of the excreta off the tracks,” he said. “You have to bend down, brush it out, collect and then dispose of it.”
Bio-toilets are the other key element in the Railways’ proposal to fully mechanise the process. The Railway claim to have introduced 68,000 by June 2020. Safai Karamchari Andolan’s Bezwada Wilson contested the figures. “They have not even fitted a 1,000 of the 175,000 plus bogies with proper biodegradable toilets,” he said. “So who is cleaning all the faeces? Thousands of women, of course.”
The Safai Karamchari Andolan has been battling the Railways on this issue in court, since 2003. Wilson has repeatedly pointed out a problem in the 2013 act, which banned the practice but allowed the government to exempt certain departments from its purview. “They stall, they deny but Railways continues to be the largest employer of manual scavengers,” he said. “They employ over 5 lakh people as manual scavengers.”
Mohanna is not aware of the laws. Her only concern is to keep her job secure. “That is the insidious nature of how manual scavenging works,” Karuppu Samy said. “Without political will and rehabilitation, the state is in effect preying on the economic insecurities of women like Mohanna, holding out the threat that if the practice of manual scavenging ends so will their jobs.”
Radhika Bordia is a journalist and Director, Global Programme at the Missouri School of Journalism, United States. Yogesh Pawar is a journalist based in Mumbai.
This reportage was supported by the Thakur Family Foundation. The Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage.
This report first appeared on Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.