Just a few weeks back, in the month of September, the newspaper articles were filled with the deaths of
“manual scavengers”. Like any other person I googled about manual scavenging and came across a
documentary named “ Kakkoosa ”. It is so difficult to think about the lives of these people after watching
Many people refuse to acknowledge manual scavenging because they are under the impression that,
this is what they are supposed to do. An alarming number of sanitation workers die regularly, one in
every five days, because of this iniquitous and illegal practice. India has had a tumultuous history with
this evil practice which was banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and
Rehabilitation Act of 2013.
As per the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, contract labor cannot be used for work which is permanent or
perennial in nature. Since sanitation work is required to be done regularly, civic bodies are expected to
hire workers as permanent employees and they should provide timely wages, paid leaves, medical
expenses for any injuries and more importantly, safety gear to prevent those injuries. But still, Mumbai
civic body which employs more than 35000 sanitation workers, hires majority of its workers through a
convoluted network of contractors and subcontractors. So, whenever any accident occurs, the blame
game starts between civic bodies and contractors and the worker, who is supposed to feed his family, is
left alone to die.
Despite of laws and condemnation from the highest court of land, it is estimated that more
than 2000 workers have died since the supreme court order, and this figure doesn’t account for
innumerable manhole deaths that have gone under-reported or unnoticed.
There is another unfolded page in these cases of brutal deaths – the cast of the victim. It is no secret that
most of the sanitation workers in our country are the so called untouchable group. The Dalit community was
engaged for menial jobs even before India was colonized, the work of manual scavenging was perhaps
institutionalized during British regime.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan, a movement that aims to eradicate manual scavenging from India, began
with the efforts of the youth from the community lead by Bezwada Wilson, who was denied to even
register for a job because of his community and was told to do the scavenging work.
Caste based mindset is the root cause of this baneful practice in India and the policy makers have no
idea what is happening at the ground level. Or maybe they know, they just chose to ignore that. Albeit,
Swachh Bharat Abhiyan propagated the wave of cleanliness but failed to address the dirtiest truth of this
cleaning job. If the elected caretakers of the constitution rather than trifling, would have shown some political will
to change the system, the lives of sanitation workers could have been improved.
Another aspect which is needed to be addressed is the challenges faced by women in this line of work.
Women are exploited both economically and sexually . They are asked to work in night shifts. They are paid
less. They are sexually harassed by supervisors, sanitary inspectors, contractors, literally by each official of the opposite gender. They have to work with acid which can result in urinary infections and can even affect their uteruses. They have no one who can help them, who can listen to their agony. They are left with no other option but to work. The whole concept of feminism is partial if these women are not taken into account.
When it comes to compensation and rehabilitation, the supreme court order in 2014 directed that families of all persons who have died in sewage system since 1993 be identified and a compensation of 10 lakh to be provided to them. Also there is a scheme in which they are supposed to receive 40000 as instant financial help to quit the job. But these schemes another arrow in the dark, as real beneficiaries are not getting benefited while the entire amount is getting bifurcated into the accounts of corruption.
There was an anecdote shared by Divya Bharathi, maker of Kakkoosa documentary, regarding her visit to
a place in Ramanathpuram. A manual scavenging death took place there. There were four children in the
family, including a pair of twins. When she met the first twin and asked her name, the girl told her
Muniswari. After a while, she encountered the second twin. She thought of her as Muniswari, to which
girl told her that she was not. When she asked the girl about her name, girl replied, kakkoos. That’s
what they were called in that area and it was so deep rooted in her that she called herself by that name.
For those who aren’t aware, Kakkoos in Tamil means “TOILET”.
Society needs to be empathetic with this community. We have to realize that it is not acceptable to send
someone down the gutter or a drain. The least we can do is whenever we encounter one such gem working, we can treat them with respect and if possible, provide them some gloves and other supportive measures, to make their work less afflictive.
Make this your Diwali resolution and help them eradicate this noxious practice.
Choose Humanity NOT caste!