Women Scavengers Face Severe Social Discrimination in India

For half her life Jaanki, 70, a widow living in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has eked out a living by cleaning dry latrines and carrying human excreta on her head. Manual scavenging is the only way of life for her just as it is for Chanda from Bada Chauraha near Mall Road or Veena from the Muslim-dominated Begamganj. And for this nauseating work, they get paid by Rs 30 (US$1=Rs 44.6) for 30 days per house, which is not even one US dollar a month.

A recent film made by Bengaluru filmmaker, Gopal Menon entitled, “Marching Towards Freedom,” comes as a reminder that manual scavenging, although banned by law, continues to exist in many parts of India. It is also a reminder as to how manual scavengers face severe social discrimination. They are categorised as ‘Bhangis’, a sub-caste of Dalits who occupy the lowest tier in the caste hierarchy.

Menon was commissioned to make this film by Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation that focuses on the issue of eradicating manual scavenging. The film was recently screened at a national conference that the SKA had organised in Delhi. The filmmaker had travelled to 20 states in India to capture the realities of the manual scavenger, recording their voices and opinions.

Points out Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, “In 140 years, from the time the British introduced the sewage treatment facility for the first time in Calcutta in 1870, only 269 out of 5,161 towns in urban India have sewage treatment plants. Sulabh International has shown India an affordable solution for an appropriate, indigenous and culturally acceptable technology that can be put to effective use to discontinue manual scavenging.”

Says Jaanki, “People turn their back on us and don’t even want our shadow to fall on them.” She was speaking for many women like her in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state, ruled by the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Mayawati, a Dalit herself. It is ironical that despite being governed by a Dalit leader, little attention has been paid to end manual scavenging in UP.

But UP is not an exception. India is home to about 300,000 manual scavengers even today. Of these, 85 per cent are women. Fifty years have lapsed since the 1961 Census spelt out that 8,02,400 persons in the country were carrying night soil on their head. Eighteen years have passed since the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, formally outlawed manual scavenging. Yet, the number of persons who do this work is unconscionably high.

In the state of Uttarakhand, the condition of women scavengers is deplorable. Rajjo, 40, from Akandhera village in Roorkee, who had to take up manual scavenging once she went to her marital home, describes graphically the treatment meted out to women like her. “People give us food from a distance and address us as bhangin,” she reveals.

Incidentally, it is not just outsiders who treat them in a humiliating manner, sometimes even their own children ask them to keep away.

Years of carrying human excreta on their heads has also taken a toll on their health. Menon confirms that these women suffer from asthma, skin diseases, back pain and sight-related problems. Take the case of Rajjo’s neighbour, Sukko, who says that she can no longer thread a needle, although she is relatively young.

The state of women scavengers in Bihar, where Chief Minister Nitish Kumar professes his commitment to advancing the case of women and the lowest castes, is degrading. Once they give up manual scavenging, they have no way to earn a living.

Bhasha Singh, a roving editor of a Hindi national daily, has studied the plight of these women across 10 states over the last seven years. Recipient of the Ramnath Goenka award for journalism for her stories on scavenging, Singh points out that the illegal practice of manual scavenging is imposed through a barbaric and feudal system.

According to Singh, manual scavenging also exposes the gender and caste attitudes of the entire political and administrative structure and planning, with the exception of a few states like Jammu and Kashmir.

Changing the lives of these women and ending the discrimination they face should be a national priority and the SKA has been working for close to 20 years to achieve this. Wilson has painful memories of seeing scavengers use bare hands to lift human excreta from dry latrines in the township of Kolar in Karnataka. In 2003, Wilson began mobilising workers to register a symbolic protest against manual scavenging in 2003. His efforts bore fruits; women across the country took to the streets to burn the cane and bamboo baskets they used for carrying the human excreta.

Seven years ago the SFA filed a petition in the Supreme Court arguing for the strict execution of the 1993 Act that promised eradication of manual scavenging, conversion of dry latrines and rehabilitation for manual scavengers. Says Wilson, “We have full faith in the judiciary and we hope that they will address the problems of the most marginalised sections of society with due sensitivity.”

Will India’s highest court deliver lasting justice to women who have long been living on the edge of the abyss?