“I would rather that my whole family die of hunger than to let my daughter do the work I do.”
“I’d rather that my children do anything other than this, anything at all.” says Shanta Balmike, a manual scavenger.
Armed with nothing but their hands, close to a million ‘manual scavengers’ are sent down sewers to remove human waste that festers beneath Industrial India’s thriving cities.
Wrangling with the unremitting stench of day old human excrement, withering in the remorseless Indian heat, flies a-frenzy over the foul-smelling fetor that rises up in to the very depths of the nostrils, manual scavenging is one of the most vile jobs on the planet.
Kotamma Chirala, a manual scavenger, added, “We soil ourselves, so that our children and our children’s children can look clean in others eyes.”
With it proving difficult for former scavengers to shrug off their past, it’s the ultimate sacrifice for a mother to work as a manual scavenger in a desperate bid to keep their children away from a repugnant environment and to avoid later complications of rehabilitation that their offspring may suffer.
Considering it’s the world’s biggest government system; democracy is failing millions of manual scavengers who are earning a pittance at 2-3 rupees a day – less than a penny- but it’s a problem that dates back generations.
In theory, the employment of a ‘manual scavenger’ was made illegal some 18 years ago, but the robustness of a century-old caste system will never be outlawed and thus these people will remain at the bottom of society.
The Indian Government has already missed 3 deadlines to flush out manual scavenging, most recently in November 2009, but the chronic lack of a basic sewage system installed in the heart of these cities makes dry latrines the easiest and cheapest alternative.
Isha Bhagwat, director of programme operations at WaterAid blames fundamental Indian values for the continuance of this problem, he said, “Sanitation in India as a whole is well behind, this problem is particularly neglected.
“It’s sad because all the other Asian countries do not have this problem; we do not hear stories from Pakistan or Bangladesh, it’s built in the India psyche.”
WaterAid hope to rid India completely of manual scavenging by 2022, but with such a subject, setting ambitious targets, is effectively shrouding them in failure.
The hurdle that many NGOs face is the lack of active engagement from the Indian government which has caused this issue to be taken above their heads to the Supreme Court.
Mr Bhagwat said, “After it was made illegal no government functionary will admit that it is still going on in that area, so given the situation, repeatedly these notices and deadlines are missed.
“There is a constant tussle, but now we have reached the Supreme Court and there is an argument going on there.”
WaterAid, the only NGO working exclusively on water hygiene sanitation, have set up projects to engage with communities, placing specific importance on protection against water toxicity and rebuilding damaged self-esteem.
Their recent study depicts how most manual scavengers are Dalits, the lowest caste in India, formerly known as Untouchables, and 80 per cent of those are women.
‘Scavenging rights’ are often inherited, which has caused WaterAid to set up relocation initiatives to battle the burden of being born in to such a futile existence.
Mr Bhagwat said, “We are offering these workers new jobs and opportunities but this has not been particularly successful because people still look upon them as part of the Dalit caste and not worthy.
“Therefore we have to motivate these people to just give it up by migrating and getting away from the city.”
Can manual scavenging be eradicated? Yes, but what must follow is the eradication of an ancient-old intrinsic-immersed caste system. Such a task seems unlikely of ever succeeding.
Mr Bhagwat said, “We will just keep on highlighting the issue, make sure we engage with the Supreme Court and the government, telling them that this is really happening. It’s all we can do.”