In Farrukhnagar, a small village 40 kilometers from the Indian capital of New Delhi, Saraswati is hard at work. The 54-year-old trudges through the Byzantine by-lanes of her locality early in the morning as the town is just waking up—a drill that she has followed with tiresome regularity for four decades.
The basket, broom and wooden scooping boards she carries identify her as someone to avoid. It’s the traditional kit of manual scavengers, people who pick up human excreta every day from India’s thousands of dry toilets, which have no water or flushing mechanism. Saraswati, a mother of three, is unfazed by the looks that she gets in the street—even as she bears a basket full of human dung on her head to empty in a dump. For her, scraping out toilets helps feed her family.
“I can’t think of doing anything else. It is a job I know just too well and at this age,” Saraswati says. “What else can I do?” She began his menial work with her mother in her early teens.
In another corner of the same locality, Rajju, 35, has worked up a sweat after cleaning 15 dry toilets. Reinforcing her status on the lowest rung of society, Rajju has waited for 10 minutes outside one of her stops. A member of one of the 30 households she services daily is still using the toilet. Once it is vacated, she can collect whatever is heaped in the gap between two cemented footrests.
“These people have no respect for us,” she says. “Given half a chance, I will leave this work. But who listens to us and who cares?” Saraswati and Rajju are among the 30-odd women who carry out this demeaning job every day in this crowded locality.
Though manual scavenging was officially banned in 1993 (a law provides for imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine), the practice persists in many states in India. There are estimated to be over 1 million manual scavengers, mostly women from disadvantaged groups like the Dalits, or Untouchables, who carry away the waste, known as “night soil,” in baskets placed on their heads.
Just last month, India’s Supreme Court asked all state governments to fully implement legislation for eradicating manual scavenging. It even went one step further and directed that these persons be provided alternate employment and housing.
“We have heard this just too often. The courts pronounce one thing, and the governments turn a blind eye,” rues Poonam, 44. She supports a family of four and earns measly 450 Indian rupees (less than $8) every month. Like others, she has been in this degrading work for too many years to even think of anything else.
Those campaigning against this practice maintain that it’s difficult to get governments to act, since they often feign ignorance about the scavengers.
“The issue that has been most challenging about this case for all of us who are handling it is that manual scavenging is invisible,” says Supreme Court lawyer Shomona Khanna. In her reckoning, the vocation has been made so invisible that getting people and governments to acknowledge that manual scavenging exists has been a real challenge.
“And until you acknowledge that a problem exists, you can’t begin solving it,” Khanna adds.
Other civil rights activists vow to end the practice, if they are empowered to do so. Bindeshwar Pathak works for Sulabh International, an organization that has “liberated” scavengers from their demeaning jobs.
“Give me three years, and I can end this practice in this country. I can put in place cheap, eco-friendly toilet technology all over. The problem is the will of the government,” says Pathak. Often referred to as the “Sanitary Reaper,” Pathak has gathered a team of dedicated volunteers who go from one state to another, coaxing women to give up their jobs. In turn, his organization offers them alternate work.
“The problem of this community is as much economic as it is socio-cultural. In fact, it is woven into the fabric of India’s culture. Traditions take time to change and require the will and support from all sections of society,” says Pathak stoically.
In an election year, poop is part of the campaign. Stump speeches refer to putting a modern toilet in every home, and a parallel campaign is running to stop open defecation. Whether or not the promises come good once the political realities are fully flushed out remains to be seen.