We are achhuth (untouchable)

Manual scavengers say ‘no more’

NEW DELHI: It may be hard to imagine that manual scavenging is still practised in parts of the National Capital Region. But in many parts of NCR and neighboring states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, people manually clean dry toilets everyday while braving dangerous infections, sometimes for a paltry sum of Rs 10 per household.

On Wednesday, the Safai Karmachari Andolan organized a protest where manual scavengers, mostly women, burned baskets which they use to carry night soil. They demanded a complete ban on the practice.

Deepa (30) cleans dry toilets in at least 30 houses in Bharatpur per day. She suffers from severe infections; her children fall ill frequently. "There is no other livelihood for us. We are achhuth (untouchable) and our families have been doing this for a long time. But I am sure the government will make our lives dignified. This practice should be abolished now," she says.

Deepa is joined by Meena and Kashmiri—from other urban villages—who recollect how many manual scavengers either die due to serious infections or fall so sick that they are unable to continue. "I remember how a young man fell into a huge drain while cleaning it. He died. His family is now striving to make ends meet," says Meena.

Last month, three men died while cleaning a sewer inside Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. They may have collapsed after inhaling toxic gases from the sewer. Moni Singh (16), daughter of one of the cleaners, attended the protest and described how risky the job is.

"My father was not a manual scavenger. He was a sweeper. We don't even know why he agreed to clean a sewer. When I was informed about his death, I rushed to the spot. The sewer opening at IGNCA was so small I couldn't imagine how three men got in. My father choked to death," says Moni.

She and her sister Soniya go to an open school in Trilokpuri but also work as domestic helps. "People are very particular about not hiring domestic helps from our caste. We have to be careful so that employers don't get to know," she says.

Rajdulari from Meerut is not allowed to touch or even enter the homes of upper caste people. "It's because we clean their toilets with our hands. We do not use gloves," she says. Her husband and children are also in the same profession but they do not manage to earn more than Rs 3,000 per month.

Activist and national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson, says that the government should consider passing the new Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill 2012 with amendments as priority. "In the new bill the definition of manual scavenger is according to our demand but railways are an exception. People who clean septic tanks, open drains and railway tracks are also scavengers," he says. Manual scavengers are employed in many households in Nand Nagri and Sundar Nagri in Delhi, Wilson says.