Power-Washing away the Menace of Manual Scavenging
1. Small Scale Solutions to the Problem
Manual scavenging, by its inherent nature, is necessary for the daily functioning of sewage and sanitation systems. Due to this reason, despite the best efforts of public and private players, manual scavenging can most irreversibly be eradicated if it is made redundant for the task it is meant for. There are two dimensions involved in this eradication – the workers (and their means of survival) and the employers (and their requirement for scavenging). Any long-term sustainable solution for manual scavenging must take into account the corresponding effects on both sides of the coin, without which the system so established runs the risk of collapsing. There exists one obvious solution to manual scavenging and that is ‘automated scavenging’, wherein the process of handling of human excreta and its subsequent disposal can be fully or partially automated. In order to achieve the same, a thorough analysis is required of the location and condition of dry latrines. The following graphs indicate the presence of dry latrines in certain states and the number of the manual scavengers (registered) and a logical implication is the case for budget allocation accordingly:
Figure 2: Number of Dry Latrines in Certain States
Figure 3: Number of Manual Scavengers in Certain States
A simple mechanism to eradicate manual scavenging is the construction of water-sealed latrines, which dispose of excreta through a linear system involving fast-flowing water. An emphasis on the construction of the same has been made in the Act itself$^1$. The proposed measures deal with one of the two dimensions previously mentioned, that of the employer whose demands for cleaning and sanitation are met by virtue of the aforementioned solutions. However, the manual scavenger stands to lose from this arrangement given that these measures ultimately remove their only source of income, no matter how meagre it may be.
2. The Rehabilitation Conundrum
From the perspective of the manual scavenger, the Act that bans the profession does not truly emancipate them for emancipation is not simply the breaking the shackles holding an individual, but also giving them a crutch to support themselves on until they can find the strength in their legs again. Recognizing this, the Act lays down provisions for the rehabilitation of workers$^2$. In pursuance of the same, the most comprehensive scheme launched by the government has been the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), monitored by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC)$^3$. The scheme is an effective way to provide employment by providing loans, subsidy and training to former scavengers who can then run small-scale business to sustain themselves. The outlay for the same has been indicated as follows.
Figure 4: Outlays for SRMS
The numbers indicate that the problems don’t lie with the money, but rather its dispersion and application at the ground-level. During the course of the research, it was observed that the following aspects of government action (or lack thereof) contribute to the gap between the provisions of the Act and their intended effect and the actual realities faced by manual scavengers in the case of rehabilitation.
The Data Void:
As mentioned before, the government’s data collection machinery has been below par due to the lack of enthusiasm, training, awareness and infrastructure in the smallest of governance units on the part of both the authorities as well as workers. The municipal and panchayat bodies have so far been unable to create exhaustive lists and hence, government authorities have neither been able to penalize employers or rehabilitate workers in an adequate capacity. Interestingly enough, there has been no lack of surveys conducted. Multiple data surveys done by several different organizations have led to discrepancies cropping up in these lists$^4$. However, these organizations must contend with the same, aforementioned barriers to data collection and this leads to their lists being inaccurate.
On more than one occasion during the research, a commentator has accused the government of wilfully ignoring the plight of the manual scavengers. This has been true across states and has led to the exclusion of many who continue to remain in the vicious cycle. This apathy has been the result of long-standing, established practices which conveniently place the burden of scavenging on a select group of people, and those that do not belong to such group are either ambivalent or in denial of the indignity and pestilence associated with this profession.
The Social Status:
Stratification in Indian society has been such that Dalits are the group most greatly embroiled in manual scavenging. The social factor, on top of the fact that they are on the bottom of the economic chain, has meant that there is a layer of identity attached to them that history has established, is the mark of an inferior individual, leading to the idea that manual scavenging and analogous tasks are intrinsic to them. This deep-rooted psyche is not exclusive only to the employers but also to authorities and other members of society, the combined weight of which keeps lower-caste people trapped in this work$^5$.
An Unorganized Voice:
Manual scavengers in India do not have a singular official society of workers. In 1994, activist Bezwada Wilson established the Safai Karamchari Andolan and it is, to this day, the most reliable organization from the perspective of workers. The lack of a concerted push for eradication from within the government, however, has led to stagnation of the situation. An organization, established by the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment and one that lobbies directly to the highest authorities, is necessary to ensure that suppressed voices are heard and heard by the right people.
The employer and the worker thus stand to benefit from an arrangement involving efficient, human-less cleaning of sewage systems and waste disposal and a rehabilitation programme that makes concerted efforts to solve the aforementioned existing problems. In the long-term, a combination of awareness, sensitization and skill-training can erode the perception of manual scavengers being socially inferior and give them the tools to create new income streams through self-employed initiatives. In the short-term, however, there is a requirement to create a vast gap between automated and manual scavenging systems in a way which makes the latter entirely redundant. For this, equipment used must be state-of-the-art, constantly evolving, affordable and easily accessible to employers. These machines should be considerably more cost-effective and efficient, both in terms of speed and operative capacity, in order for them to displace the currently convenient and established paradigm of manual scavenging.
The Mechanised Leap Forward
As previously discussed in part 3.1 of this article, sewer-jetting and sewer-rodding are techniques that may not work in every situation. The cost and barriers to utilization, especially for the former, make them partial solutions. Genrobotics, a disruptive technology start-up company in Kerala has developed the ‘Bandicoot Robot’$^6$. This 80 kg machine can autonomously (and semi-autonomously when the situation so demands) clean manholes at greater speeds and effectiveness than a human. This system is an all-purpose cleaning mechanism for different types of sewage blockages and can also dispose of excreta without exposing it to humans. The feasibility of such a machine has been under the scanner, but engineers in the know of the technical details have given it a green light, considering its utility and operative capability$^7$. The Bandicoot robot has previously been tested in the field by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) and proved its worth in such test. Besides this, a more expensive but far-reaching solution, is the complete revamping of the current sewage system in order to make excreta disposal a linear process; this radical step involves the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and an advanced sewage system as is visible in the United States$^8$. AI-powered programmes can bring expediency to a linear system of waste disposal and can further automate the process, to the extent that human involvement is not required. This particular measure is admittedly far-fetched and requires considerable investment and political will over a long period of time. It was necessary, however, to provide it as an example in order to compare manual scavenging in India with sewage systems in more developed countries to emphasize on the extent to which automation can be done. Miniature machines (handheld systems) are currently the most feasible and accessible solutions. The aforementioned sewer-jetting system, along with power-washers and handheld blockage sensors serve as effective measures against human exposure to non-decomposed excreta. The apex court has previously acknowledged the importance of mechanization and construction of sanitary latrines and the role that they have in eradication of manual scavenging. The court categorically states that the Centre and States have a responsibility to implement adequately the provisions of the Act$^9$. Within the act, the term ‘protective gear’, as has been mentioned before, is not defined satisfactorily. The paper proposes a change to the definition which includes ‘gear best-suited to the limitation of exposure, reasonable provision of which is contingent on capability of employer.’ This newer definition considers a higher standard of equipment to be used and places responsibility squarely on the employer for the provision of such equipment.
The two-part article investigated various measures that can be taken to eradicate manual scavenging. It was determined that short-term feasible solutions such as reasonable provision of protective gear, compensation to family members of deceased workers and rehabilitation and reskilling of former manual scavengers, an amendment to the current act and more sophisticated machinery. The article also looked into the underlying difficulties in regards to implementation and how such difficulties can be overcome.
It is evident that no piece of legislation nor subsequent amendments to it can truly drive away manual scavenging. There is a requirement for concerted effort in implementation from every stakeholder for the emancipation of manual scavengers. In relation to the hypothesis, the research proved the initial assumption correct wherein it does appear that the term ‘manual scavenging’ has been construed narrowly and has led to the exclusion of several thousand workers as a consequence. The second assumption has been proved partially true given that it is not only the construction of sanitary latrine that lacks a roadmap, but various other schemes such as mechanization, rehabilitation and vigilance which lack a concrete structure.
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, § 5 (2), No 25, Acts of Parliament, 2013 (India).
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, § 13 and § 16, No 25, Acts of Parliament, 2013 (India).
- Parliament of India, Manual Scavenger: Welfare and Rehabilitation (August 2013, not for publication)
- IndiaSpend, ‘Data discrepancy obstructing rehabilitation of manual scavengers’ (March 21, 2021).
- United Nations, ‘Breaking Free: Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers’ (r, 2014) 1.
- TA Ameerudheen, ‘Kerala engineers who developed robot to clean manholes are on a mission to end manual scavenging’ The Scroll (27 February 2018) 2.
- Chandrashekhar Jinendran, ‘Development of modular in-pipe robot for inspection and cleaning’ (first published 2020) 4.
- Greg Quist, ‘Sewer Monitoring turns to AI’ (Water and Wastes Digest) (14 October 2019) https://www.wwdmag.com/artificial-intelligence/sewer-monitoring-turns-ai
- Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, (2014) 11 SCC 224.
- A podcast: Center for New Economics Studies – The Thankless Role of Manual Scavengers | In Conversation with Palani Kumar
- The website of Safai Karmachari Andolan: Home | Safai Karmachari Andolan.
- Kainat Sarfaraz’s IE feature on women manual scavengers in Meerut.
- The Nine Kinds of Manual Scavenging in India (thewire.in).
- Shiv Prakash Katiyar’s review of the book Adrishya Bharat by Bhasha Singh in Indian Journal of Human Development.