“Sanitation is more important than independence.”
– Mahatma Gandhi (in 1925).
If you find the images used in this article nauseating, then I have made my point. For us, Indians and other Asians, this is life. We have to live with it.
In 2001, World Toilet Organization (WTO) declared November 19 as World Toilet Day (WTD). Today, over 19 countries observe WTD with events hosted by various
water and sanitation advocates.
In developing countries in Asia and Africa, poor sanitation and water supply result in economic losses estimated at $260 billion annually.
Though a majority of the world’s population has access to mobile phones, one third of humanity do not have access to proper sanitation, including toilets or latrines, affecting the environment, human health, dignity and security, and social and economic development.
We all like food. We spend most of our income on food. We look forward eagerly to what we would eat today for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But, do we ever give thought to what happens as a result of all that food we consume?
In our society and community, it is a taboo and not polite to talk about toilets. We do not want others to see the cleaning and sanitation products we use. So, we hide them. We even hide the sewer system beneath the ground.
Because one third of humanity (2.5 billion people), or one in three people living in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, do not have access to clean, safe, and functioning hygienic toilets. Therefore, they do not bother to discuss the problem of sanitation. As such, sanitation remains a neglected issue with meager financial investments in water, sanitation and hygiene sectors.
In the developing countries, the cost of inaction on sanitation is high. Due to lack of toilets, men, women, the young, the sick and the elderly have to defecate in the open, in fields, in vacant lots, and even by the roadside during the day and at night. Almost 1 billion people continue to defecate in the open.
Lack of access to clean bathrooms in schools deters many girls from pursuing their education after they reach puberty. In some regions, due to lack of toilets, girls do not go to school when they are menstruating. Improved sanitation facilities can have a particularly positive impact on the education opportunities of young girls, affected by the lack of privacy and cleanliness during their menstrual period. Also, lack of toilets in schools affect all learners from concentrating in the classrooms, as they have to wait for longer periods before being able to relieve themselves inprivacy in a dignified manner.
Without toilets and proper sanitation the environment around homes, workplaces, markets, and hospitals, become sources of infection and diarrhoeal diseases due to millions of tonnes of human excretion.
Due to lack of improved sanitation almost 2,000 children die every day from preventable diarrhoeal diseases, the second leading cause of child deaths in the world. Diarrhoeal diseases caused by inadequate sanitation, and unhygienic conditions put children at multiple risks leading to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, high morbidity, malnutrition, stunted growth and death. Every year 0.85 million children die from diarrhoea. Poor sanitation and unimproved water cause 88% of these deaths. Studies reveal that improved sanitation can help reduce diarrhoeal diseases by about 33%.
Despite the scale of the crisis, sanitation remains a low priority for many governments.
How can we mitigate this situation?
Now, many organisations have started to discuss toilets. Investment in sanitation is becoming a priority in many international communities. Yet, because the topic of sanitation has until now been neglected to a vast extent, they wait for good solutions to the problem. New solutions and approaches to sanitation that should have been tried and tested a long time back, are starting to find support only now.
Progress depends on adequate investment and collaborative action by civil societies, multilateral agencies, academia and the private sector in developing countries by supporting national efforts to improve sanitation for all strata of their society.
To address these issues, in July 2013, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Sanitation for All” Resolution (A/RES/67/291) designating November 19 as World Toilet Day, aims to change both behaviour and policy on issues ranging from ending open-air defection (which 1.1 billion people practice worldwide) to enhancing water management.
On July 24, 2013, Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, issued a statement on adoption of the General Assembly resolution ‘Sanitation for All.’
I am delighted and grateful that Member States have adopted a resolution officially designating November 19th as World Toilet Day. I thank the Government of Singapore for its leadership on a crucially important global issue. This new annual observance will go a long way toward raising awareness about the need for all human beings to have access to sanitation.
Despite progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, one in three people do not have a basic toilet. Almost 2,000 children die every day from preventable diarrhoeal diseases. Poor sanitation and water supply result in economic losses estimated at $260 billion annually in developing countries.
Proper sanitation is also a question of basic dignity. It is unacceptable that women have to risk being the victims of rape and abuse, just to do something that most of us take for granted. It is also unacceptable that many girls are pushed out of school for lack of basic sanitation facilities.
This new resolution builds on the General Assembly’s “Sustainable sanitation: the drive to 2015”, agreed in 2010, and adds momentum to the Call to Action on Sanitation that I, on behalf of the Secretary-General, launched in March this year.
I urge every country to accelerate progress towards a world in which everyone enjoys this most basic of rights. I look forward to working with all partners to make Sanitation for All a reality.
The lack of access to decent toilet is no joke for a third of the world’s people, but a matter of life and death. No other invention has saved more lives than a toilet. Without access to toilets, many women and girls are too embarrassed to go in the open to defecate during daytime and so deny themselves relief until darkness sets in. But, trips to fields or roadside at night, however, puts them at risk of physical attack and sexual violence. So, having a toilet in or near the home lowers the risk of women and girls getting subjected to violence and rape.
The images I have used in this article are real. I accept the fact that they are nauseating. If you too feel so, then I have made my point. Manual scavenging is in vogue not only in India but is rampant all over South Asia. For us Asians, this is life. We have to live with it.
It was a hot afternoon. I was waiting for the bus in Kodambakkam – the home of Kollywood in Chennai. Like others, I too pressed my handkerchief to my face to ward off the stench emanating from the heap of reeking night soil lying nearby.
Then I saw this old man around 70, with only a loincloth to cover his body, his right hand groping into the clogged drain of a septic tank.
My heart bled for him. I drew out a ten rupee note from my shirt pocket and stretched it towards him.
He looked up at me. His face glowed with anger. He murmured a few loathsome phrases from his gutter language. Clenching his fist, he shouted, “Hey man, who did you think I am? I’m not a beggar!”
Before I could apologize, the old man started ranting:
“Ayyaa [Sir], I am an old man and I don’t know when I was born. I do an honest job. My work is clean. My father too was a scavenger. I don’t remember doing any other work. I have three girls and one boy. Two girls are married, the third is a widow, and she lives with us. My son is a useless fellow. He steals at home and loafs around with his good-for-nothing friends. I don’t know how; he sniffs my liquor wherever I hide it. I had an eye operation only two weeks ago. If I sit at home, who will feed my wife, daughter, and son?“
This is only one story of the terrible plight of athe manual scavengers in Chennai.
This made me think of the caste system in India. While there are just four main castes, and more than 20,000 sub-castes. Then what about the sub-sub-castes, clans, and a multitude of other mutations?
Here is another story of the terrible plight of manual scavengers in Pandharpur, Maharashtra.
Gurunath works all day amidst the extremely unbearable stench of night soil. He often stays dead drunk to do his work. At times, he finds it difficult to eat when he thinks about the human waste he has wallowed in. He has asthma. Many of these cleaners succumb to asthma and the life expectancy of many in their community is just 30 years.
In Punjab, men belonging to lower castes, particularly from the Chuhar, Mehathar, Halalkhor, Lalbaghi, Bangi, Thotti and Jamadar castes, are widely employed as manual scavengers and sewage cleaners. These caste subgroups generally called Valmikis, are the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy.
Jaikumar, who runs a public primary school in Punjab, says:
“A lot of children in the school come from migrant families. Everyone thinks that Punjab is a prosperous state but the truth is that we have our own problems. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to have two meals a day and especially the dalits, the migrants and the people who are surviving on less than minimum wage … Members of my community are poor and there are high levels of illiteracy. They aren’t aware of the dangers attached to these jobs or of other opportunities available. It is crucial that they be educated about the risks involved. Only then will they be empowered to demand safety equipment and even an end to this practice altogether.”
Here is a video made by Jaikumar that highlights the dangers of this work. This video shows two manual scavengers killed while working without any safety masks or gloves which necessarily have to be provided by the government.
In India, 90 to 95 percent of people belonging to the scavenger communities engage in this abominable undignified work. The drains often contain an abnormally high percentage of carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide and other toxic gasses. When cleaners are directly exposed to these gasses they fall sick and even, as the above video shows, die immediately. But most manual cleaners do not know that on every waking day their lives are under threat.
Why should human beings, citizens of democratic India work day after day surrounded by the unbearable conditions and stench of human waste?
What happened to the 1993 law banning the practice?
Sagarika Ghose: The story of Prabhu and Guru Dhodiya and the terrible plight of manual scavengers. They do their job standing all day in human waste, standing in the unbearable extreme stench of night soil; they often have to stay dead drunk to do this job. They are sometimes unable to eat because of the human waste they are surrounded by. Many of them get asthma and the life expectancy is 30 years for many in their community. Our sister channel IBN Lokmat reported on manual scavengers in Pandharpur, Maharashtra leading the Maharashtra government to reinforce a ban. Actor Aamir Khan has also taken up the issue with the PM and on his show Satyamev Jayate. But despite the law, despite the ban, why is manual scavenging continuing.
Day after day working in the unbearable conditions and stench of human waste. Why should human beings, citizens of democratic India have to do this? Why is it that manual scavenging is increasing in India in spite of a 1993 law banning the practice?
Joining us Asim Sarode, he is a lawyer of High Court and Human Rights activist, Pradip More, convenor of the campaign against Manual Scavenging in Maharashtra, from Pune we have S Anand, Publisher of Navayana. And Paul Divakar, General Secretary of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Thank you very much for joining us.
We will also get you the views of Mukul Wasnik, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, to whom I spoke to earlier. When I spoke to Mukul Wasnik, I asked him why in spite of the law, in spite of the government efforts – why is manual scavenging still continuing, in fact increasing? Did it require an Aamir Khan to wake up the government on the issue of manual scavenging?
Mukul Wasnik: It didn’t require anybody to tell the government as to what needs to be done. Basically the government has been attending to this as a national priority recently after the data of census 2011 became available where it was pointed out that all most about 26 lakh insanity latrines exist. We thought it would be better for us to call collectors from various districts where the incidences are on the higher side. Similarly our present approach will be compared to what we did in 1993, when the law was enacted basically keeping the sanitation in mind. This time we are preparing a draft, rather a draft is already under circulation for inter-ministerial consultation, which will be base on human dignity. This we are attending to as a national priority. And by national priority, I mean, we take such issues on war footing. And when I say we take up these issues on war footing means that other things can wait but this cannot. People who would like to join in this campaign are most welcome and I am happy that Aamir Khan had taken up this in one of his programmes. But he was also telling me in one of the conversations that in his 47 years, 46 were such where he was totally not aware about this issue existing. But let many more people join this.
Sagarika Ghose:You are speaking about a new law on this but there is already a 1993 law banning the practice of manual scavenging and there has been no punishment. No one has been convicted for practicing manual scavenging. Will this new law be implemented and effective?
Mukul Wasnik: It will provide survey of manual scavengers, it will provide their rehabilitation and it will provide cognisable offences, non-bailable offences, with penalties which will be appropriate for a crime like this.
Sagarika Ghose:What about political will, activist say that there is no political will to act against manual scavenging?
Mukul Wasnik: See, Sagarika, I have just mentioned to you and I will again repeat that it is not about political will. We are addressing this issue with total seriousness. But I will just mention to you that these are the people who are living on the margins of society. They may be on the remotes corner of the village or in a remotes corner of an urban pocket; we have to reach out to them, not only the government but the society. As a nation we have to reach out to them. And with concerned efforts with all the concerned people, I think, the day will come sooner than later.
Sagarika Ghose:But the explain to me, why is it so difficult to eradicate this practice? Why is the government up against so many odds? Why is it so difficult to tackle it head on?
Mukul Wasnik: This is a very deep rooted, this is in the remotes corners of villages, and in the urban pockets. This is going on for generations, ages have witness this kind of thing and therefore to come out of this we will have to provide proper training to the manual scavengers. We will have to provide them with sufficient resources to come up with alternative self employment measures so that once they are out of this they can live their life with dignity. And that is the way we are trying to address this thing.
Sagarika Ghose:The minister there, Mukul Wasnik talking about what the government plans to do to eradicate manual scavenging. He was talking to me a little earlier. Let’s now turn it over to our panel. Asim Sarode, you are lawyer of the High Court, you are a human rights activist, do you find minister’s (Mukul Wasnik) comments convincing? Do you feel that the government will act, can act, can the law be implemented?
Asim Sarode: Sagarika, I beg to differ from the minister because actually what he is saying is very misleading. The act is prevailing since 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. But ask the minister to show one punishment which happened using this law. This law is already cognisable, then why are they making a new law? What is the need of the new law? I am sensing suspicion on the presentation of the new law on this issue. Because they are trying to make hazardous manual cleaning of safety tanks and latrines. So why are they adding this hazardous thing in the definition, because they want to escape from the responsibility that this is not hazardous and this is hazardous. See manual scavenging is itself hazardous. It is degrading, it is inhuman and it is anti-human, so they should completely ban rather then creating spaces to escape from the responsibilities. He have filed a case in December 2011, and three hearings took place in High Court but no government official was present. This is there sense of responsibility.
Sagarika Ghose:They have completely insensitive approach. Let me get in Mr Pradip More as well, Pradip More do you agree with those comments that are being made. That in fact government is not serious, there has not been a single conviction for anyone who is employing manual scavenger.
Pradip More: Yes, we need to see all these facts that in spite of this act and also before this act came he had various committees, and commissions were appointed to see this inhuman practice in India. Like Barkway Commission, we have Lord Committee, we had Malkana Committee. Many committees had given so many recommendations to the government but government was insensitive to see all this. And of course there are many charges that the workers are doing all this. The authorities are saying them to do this but they are doing this. All these practises are with the sense of untouchability…
Sagarika Ghose:It is because of untouchability because of social discrimination. Let me put to Paul Divakar, you know, the shocking illustration that we have shown that you have to stay drunk to do that all day. Day after day you are standing neck deep in human waste, the most degrading practice. Now is cast prejudice the reason why there is so much apathy?
Paul Divakar: It is definitely trans based discrimination, it is just the panicle at the end. The worst form of discrimination is forcing people who are meant… as you know cast is meant for pollution and think to do with death, anything to do with unclean, these are the things which are thrust upon untouchables. And one think, we need to pull up the government is leave the society alone for a while. What is the government doing specially with the Railways? Today you have the entire track, I think, lakh of kilometres, and Railways has not done a single think today to have a sensible system of sanitation. And you have all the tracks right along (*) shit all along the way. So make that first the national priority and say from 2012-2013 you are going to fix the system. Every Railways in the world, Railways has managed this. Why is it that Indian government which is so developed is not able to have a system. So some where it is not just the society. There is a will that needs to be harnessed and government can’t tolerate this kind of cast based discrimination.
Sagarika Ghose:It’s cast based discrimination which is leading to the apathy. You were telling me about the sewer workers who are also a part of sub-cast scavengers. And you were saying that they are forced to do it. It is assumed that there cast is as such that they have to go down the sewer.
S Anand: Sagarika the larger thing is, whether we raise it on this panel or Aamir Khan talks about it, the crux of the issue is that it is a part of a larger ideological apparatus, which sustains the entire cast system. It is about the cast occupation nexus in society. So it is no surprise that due to urbanisation you have these sewer lines in Delhi, let’s talk abut Delhi. 5300 kilometres of sewer line, 9 inch diameter pipes that go down you bathroom. You put a cleaning acid, what every you are putting. People flush down sanitary pads, to condoms and even construction rubble goes to these sewer lines. Why do we do that, because these people we die… there is an estimate, which I arrived when I was doing a story for Tehelka about four years again, and it was a conservative estimate arrived with Lela Vesaria, person who is a demography expert, and she and I arrived at this figure of 22,327 deaths per year all over India. In Bombay alone according to an RTI 3,495 deaths in just 24 wards in just once city. Now if you compare it with Army people who died in Kashmir from 1990 to 2007, 5,100.
So there are sacrificing their life but they are not wearing the flag so nobody bothers. Media gets very exited when a young boy goes down the little pipe, I mean, he has to be rescued. The Army is called, you have shows. But these are workers we don’t see them. When Aarushi murder case happened, they sent two workers down the sewer to find the murder weapon. Nobody discussed that in the media. What is the middle class which is watching Aamir Khan’s show doing?
Sagarika Ghose:These are invisible people. Asim Sarode, they are invisible workers, they are invisible to us. We don’t know that they are going down the sewer everyday. They are standing neck deep in night soil everyday. They are inhaling this terrible stench everyday. And yet they don’t have rights because the society believes that is their job, they are by birth cleaners of night soil.
Asim Sarode: They are also invisible in urban areas. In rural areas they are there, in urban areas they are they; they are there on the railway tracks. So political will is absent to see them and to recognise their existence. It is not the issue of manual scavenging; it is the issue of cast based violation. It is the issue of health rights of the people who are working in unorganised sector. It is also issue of how and why they are not getting medical aid, they are not getting shelter. So what is think is if Mr Mukul Wasnik is coming up with a new bill, then the people should demand and they (Government) should also consider…there should be no legislation with out people’s consideration. People should be consulted, their opinion should be gathered and only then new bill should be presented in Parliament. Otherwise, as I pointed previously, if they insert these words like hazardous and create space to escape from responsibility that should not be done.
Sagarika Ghose:You heard Mukul Wasnik there, telling us about his solutions, that he wants to provide proper condition, provide alternative livelihood, do a survey, so do you think these solution will work or do you think much more drastic punishment is the answer?
Paul Divakar: First I feel what we can, what the government can in its own hand, they must begin to implement. There is money that is being allocated, that money is not being spent. Now the question is why the money that has been allocated from the relief and rehabilitation, elimination of the manual scavenging for the last five years, why has it not been spent ferociously in a way that you can eliminate it. Then there are wider issues where you have education, you have special component plan, which is suppose to allocated certain proportion of money… today you don’t have a legislation to implement it. Now why is it… at least, Sagarika, there are 37510 crore that are allocated every year for the development of schedule cast and schedule tribes, including some of the people we have seen on the TV. If this money would have gone for their relief, rehabilitation, education, civic amenity today we would have not these scenes.
Sagarika Ghose:But as Guru (manual scavenger) was saying he has no other option. He said this is the option he had from last four generations and his family has been doing this therefore this is what I’m going to be doing.
Paul Divakar: That is because there is a force on the people and they are forced to some of these jobs. If they refuse there is violence, they are not given job anywhere else. So on one hand there is a mind set which forces them to do this job and on the other hand the wider community says that you are not fit for any other employment. There are lawyers, advocates who do this job in the evening because they are not able to sustain themselves.
Sagarika Ghose:Forced to do the job because born into a particular community. The reform measure of Mukul Wasnik didn’t convenience you.
S Anand: Not at all because reform is an agenda which has a huge Gandhian kind of aura around it. Ambedkar was for annihilation of cast.
Sagarika Ghose:So the reality is that no Brahman will go down the sewer.
S Anand: No Brahman will ever go down the sewer. Whatever you do, even you pay them Rs 1 lakh a month as a salary. You are not going to see reform. Reform is the problematic language which the state has been speaking. Especially because of this triangle hold which I call Gandhian piety. Here is a man whose photo still adorns National Commission for Safai Karamcharis’s office and he says this, you know, you have to really see this… because that is the ideology that inflects the policy on manual scavenging.
Sagarika Ghose:It is a kind of middle class… Gandhian ideology…
S Anand: Ideology which says an ideal banghi should be able to examine night soil and tell you what is the quality of your urine and tell whether it has go germs in it. And this was at a time when Ambedkar was talking about annihilation of cast. So unless you delink occupation and case…
Sagarika Ghose:You have to delink occupation and cast. As Anand is saying that no Brahman will ever go down a sewer and stand neck deep in night soil. That is a very shocking indictment of the democratic rights of manual scavengers. No person should be a manual scavengers, we must have awareness and must pressurise government to have strict punishment for those employ manual scavenging. Thank you very much indeed, Asim Sarode, Paul Divakar, S Anand. This is because of caste discrimination that manual scavenging is continuing.