Although it has been seventy years since we have achieved independence from Colonial rule, we still have not managed to break free of some of the practices that existed then. Manual scavenging, manual removal of night-soil, and manual cleaning of sewer lines take place in many parts of our country even today. As students of English, we have even read a lesson titled Lost Spring by Anees Jung in grade twelve which describes besides other things, Saheb e Alam, a rag-picker scrounging in garbage bins for something that might be of use. Rag-pickers like Saheb look for gold which might be a ten Rupee note. While rag picking might be something akin to opening boxes of gifts that have been gift wrapped, one side of rag-picking is that it is hazardous since it exposes rag pickers to diseases, toxic contamination, and perhaps even the stink of garbage.
Manual scavenging is an unfortunate task involving the manual removal of untreated human waste from toilets that have no sewer lines. There used to be time when toilets were located on the upper floor would have a pipe through which the excreta would drop into a shallow chamber at the street level. The manual scavenger would visit twice or thrice a day and remove the offal. Often the offal would be carried in an iron container on top of the head. Today, manual scavenging is on the wane, especially in relatively more developed towns and cities. The clarion call for a clean India along with better sanitation and hygiene has had its impact on the scourge of manual scavenging.
Doing away with the stigma of caste, proving scavengers with employment opportunities, empowering them and perhaps making them custodians of the recycling industry could perhaps open better avenues for them, and in the process give a boost to the country's economy.
Talk of rag picking and one will often find children and adults going through garbage dumps looking for stuff they can sell to the neighbourhood 'Kabadiwalla' or recycle goods merchant. Manual scavengers are often on the look out for plastics and scrap metals that that can be recycled. Cardboard, waste paper, glass bottles, are like gold for the people who have made scavenging their bread and butter.
Somehow it seems we are to blame for the custom of manual scavenging in the world's largest Democracy for the main reason that honest and sincere segregation of waste does not take place at home! The segregation of biodegradable waste from non biodegradable, segregation of toxic waste and e-waste from other waste might help mitigate manual scavenging. Unfortunately, poverty and superstition are also major causes for manual scavenging. Casteism and the socio-economic divide the exists between manual scavengers and mainstream communities is so great that one wonders if we can ever treat them with dignity!
The Government of India 'Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act 1993 specifically prohibits the engagement or employment of persons for manually carrying human excreta, and further possible maintenance and construction of dry latrines. Unfortunately, the manual cleaning of sewers continues to this day. People enter sewer pipelines and chambers to manually remove blockages. A few of them never return alive! These people enter the sewer pipes and chambers without safety gear, let alone disinfectants or even medical treatment. The protection they have from the foul smell or the ugliness of he sewage is to consume some alcohol to kill their sense of smell and perhaps numb them to the menial task they are doing. Laws are made only to be broken, the reality is that manual scavenging is taking place even today.It is still to be seen the the metros and swanky cities that have sprung up all over the cities! We might drive flashy cars, flaunt expensive phones, but when it comes to unblocking our sewers, we turn to the sewer expert to do our dirty work for us! We have as yet to upgrade to modern equipment for unclogging our sewers. We have got around to calling Manual Scavengers as Sanitation workers and turn a blind eye when we see them entering a manhole. Well, I guess as long as we have round manhole covers, we we continue to have Manual Scavengers (That is metaphorically of course)!
The fact of the matter is that if we can somehow transform manual scavenging into an organised industry and employ people who did the menial task of scavenging with their hands, then surely we could transform their lives. Recycling is a money-spinning industry in some Western and Scandinavian countries. As they say, nothing sells better than recycled raw material. To do away with the scourge and stigma of manual scavenging, we need to provide people at the grass-root level with proper training on how to handle hazardous waste; we need to provide them with proper equipment, systems, technology and processes for contributing to the recycling industry.