Home / Politics / Policy /  Manual scavenging: The worst job in India; PS: it’s illegal too

New Delhi: Saraswati doesn’t remember the last time her bare hands touched the statues of the gods lying on a shaky wooden plank in a corner of her one-room house in Farrukhnagar village of Ghaziabad district.

She doesn’t remember the last time she prayed or fasted.

She says every part of her body stinks—stinks even after multiple baths.

Every morning 57-year-old Saraswati and almost 50 other women in the village leave their houses to physically remove human excrement from dry toilets of higher-caste families. They are what the country calls the manual scavengers. In India, the people employed to clean such toilets have always been the untouchables or dalits—and 98% of them are women.

Saraswati is one.

With a small mouth, deep sunken eye sockets, wide nose and sun-tanned wheatish skin, Saraswati’s face is a knot of depression and a lifelong angst.

On 7 September, India’s Parliament passed a law prohibiting the employment of individuals like Saraswati as manual scavengers by prescribing stringent punishment, including imprisonment of up to five years.

Still, it isn’t clear whether the law will have any effect on people like Saraswati.

In 1993 India passed a law that mandated the demolition of all dry toilets. The same law banned the practice of manual scavenging.

People like Saraswati aren’t invisible. According to the 2011 census, there are 750,000 families that still work as manual scavengers. Most live in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir. Many states openly deny the existence of such people. But activists working for the community estimate the number to be higher, around 1.3 million, especially because the government hasn’t included the railway employees who have to clean excrement from the railway tracks, as Indian trains lack a proper waste-disposal system.

Yet, the administration turns a blind eye to them. The Ghaziabad district magistrate’s office claims there are no dry toilets in Farrukhnagar. A person working in the office, however, admits that the process of removing these remains work-in-progress.

Dry toilets are toilets that do not flush and have no running water. People shit, shit on it again, and the entire day’s excreta from the entire family is heaped in a plane between two cemented elevations that they call latrines.

Their removal is left to people like Saraswati.

Tramping through scruffy lanes in the village which has a population of around 9,656 people, Saraswati reaches lane number 43. The lanes are choked with people and buffaloes, goats and dogs. At every second street, a broom, a basket and a metal scraper is lying. Saraswati, Santosh, Shakuntala, Sudha, Sheetal, Deepa, Rajo, Seema and many others, belonging to the Balmiki caste, pick up the equipment and head out to clean the “night soil".

At 8:35am, Saraswati enters a red brick house with a margosa tree (neem) standing in the middle of the compound and the dry latrine, which must be 3 ft/4 ft, on the left side of a green-coloured gate. The paint has dropped at most of the places and one side of the gate is falling off the hinges. The house doesn’t seem to belong to a financially well-off family, but its inhabitants are upper caste, Saraswati says.

Using the metal scraper, Saraswati, who has a bad leg, picks the human excreta from the latrine. The owners of the house have surprisingly already put a handful of ash on the excreta but that doesn’t really make the sight or the smell any better. Saraswati loads it in her basket, fills it with dry leaves and twigs. And then stamps the mixture with her foot.

She limps her way through the road and dumps the contents of the basket in an open field filled with colourful plastic bags, empty water bottles, torn sheets of metal, egg shells, wrappers of Parle-G, Kurkure and Alpenliebe.

Manual scavengers are generally women who have no other employment option and inherited the jobs from their mothers or mothers-in-law , who, in turn, inherited it from theirs. In Farrukhnagar village, where the female population is almost 5,198, the average literacy rate is 62%. There are two primary schools, a junior school and an intermediate college. Saraswati didn’t go to school. Nor did her four children. Her three daughters are married, and live outside the village and her 24-year old son, who is unemployed and illiterate, stays with her. “I had no money to send my children to school. The only thing that makes me feel better is that my daughters do not have to do this filthy job. At least their lives are not ruined."

In 1901, Mahatma Gandhi termed manual scavenging a national shame and soon raised the issue of the horrible working and social conditions of ‘bhangis’ , as he termed them, at the Congress meeting in Bengal. On 17 June 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to manual scavenging as “one of the darkest blots on India’s development process" and asked all states to pledge to eliminate it by the end of 2011.

“It (manual scavenging) is a blot on the face of the Indian society. In his ashrams, Gandhiji elevated and prioritized the people who did this job. He said cleaning the outside is as important as cleaning your soul," said Ram Chandra Rahi, secretary of public charitable trust Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, and the officiating director of National Gandhi Museum.

The voice of squalling children drifts over the village. A few run around spinning wheels of broken cycles happily, others giggle while chasing squirrels. And Saraswati walks towards the second house of the day. Young men look at her and start laughing, making comments like aaj Katrina lag rahi ho (You look like Katrina Kaif today). She ignores them. She walks the way she always does—with her eyes lowered and looking straight ahead.

At her next stop, only the women in the family are present. The men are already off for work. They work in the firecracker factory—which is the primary occupation of the village. Ashima, one of the women, pours jugs of water into a broken grey plastic can, which Saraswati uses to wash off the excreta. Ashima says ever since she remembers, these women, pointing to Saraswati and apparently referring to the lower caste Balmikis, have been working for the family. “It is their source of income. What will they do if they don’t do this?" she says. Most families pay Saraswati 50-60 per month for cleaning the toilets and 10 or 20 for cleaning the litter.

According to World Bank, one in every 10 deaths in India is due to poor sanitation, a total of around 768,000 deaths a year. 51%, or 626 million, people in the country defecate in the open, accounting for 60% of the world’s total open defecations. Interestingly, annual losses per person from poor sanitation in India is estimated to be $48 on a per capita basis.

After her work is done, at around 1pm, Saraswati heads back home.

“I don’t feel like performing puja. I don’t fast. That is something only the privileged can do. My body… everything smells of human shit," says Saraswati.

There is a string of lemon and chillies hung on the cream-coloured wooden door of her house. The house is almost like a matchbox, with a folded charpoy, a few clothes, and some steel utensils. The house is made of bricks, two of which are half-broken, letting a narrow beam of light into the otherwise dark house. A bamboo mat and tarpaulin sheet spread over the house serve as the roof. There is a pack of Nycil powder, a half-squeezed Colgate tube and a toothbrush. Her house is sandwiched between a well-built house of a Pandit (higher caste among Hindus) on the right and a Balmiki’s house on the left. The elders in the Pandit family do not talk to her. The children do, but not very often.

Most of her neighbours, though, are people like her. There’s Moni, who worked as a manual scavenger till her eyes were affected by a bacterial infection. She says she can’t afford the surgery required to treat them. Bindiya, 60, has a bad leg and can’t walk or work. Rajo, 35, says being out all day gives her a headache and leaves home every morning only after popping some pills.

Saraswati’s mother was a manual scavenger, but, even though she was born into a Balmiki family she never expected to do the same work. At 16, she was married into another Balmiki family. “When my mother-in-law told me I had to clean the shit of different people, I didn’t believe her. I was sure I wouldn’t ever do this work. But here I am," she says.

The people from the higher castes in the village do not ever speak to Saraswati. No one ever comes close enough to her. Saraswati lifts one leg of her trousers up to her knees and points to the hardened, black- and yellow-coloured boils on her legs. These she says, are due to the dirty water and dirt she works in. “How do I go to a doctor? He will ask for money. I don’t have any," she says.

“I go to work on an empty stomach. I come back and I don’t even want to eat. I feel nauseous. You know the flies and insects that hover over or sit on shit? I see them on my body, in my food…everywhere," says Saraswati, wiping her sweat-slicked face using her green dupatta. Her yellow and golden bangles bounce on her wrists. She smiles when asked whether she likes bangles.

Even if dry toilets are removed from across India as the legislation suggests, the next step is rehabilitation. And that, as Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan says, doesn’t mean giving someone a rickshaw. “It is about providing an alternative livelihood to 1.3 million."

“Give me any job, anything…no matter how menial. I will do it but please take me out of this hell…take me away from this shit," says Saraswati.

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