There are half a million manual scavengers in our country for whom the only way for employment is doing something that would be a disgusting thing for us. From cleaning septic tanks, railway tracks, cleaning sewers, and everything we flush down the toilet, manual scavengers clean everything. There are countries like Japan and China where human urine and feces were once harvested to use them as fertilizers, but in India, human waste is not thought as something that can create value, but it is ritually polluting and cleaning it is a responsibility of those who are born to do it. Manual scavenging comes with the social stigma attached to it. Women are usually preferred to clean household dry insanitary latrines as they are inside the house. While men are given the task of cleaning sewers, while men get paid around 300 RS per day, women earn only 10 to 50 rs per month per household. Women get paid less for carrying on this stinky legacy as equally as men.
Although Untouchability was made illegal in our constitution, most of the hands-on waste management is mostly done by Dalits – Valmiki or Hela – who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, augmented by poor Muslims and other lower castes. The problem does not limit itself to social and gender discrimination, but there is a significant health risk linked to it. They may carry Hepatitis A, E. coli, Rotavirus, Norovirus, and pinworms. The community risks infection by coming in contact with these wastes. That also explains why sewer workers die as young as 40, falling prey to multiple health issues: cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, and cardiovascular problems. Repeated handling of human excreta without protection leads to respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Manual scavenging was banned 25 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, but the practice continues. Despite a ban on manual scavenging, 620 manual scavenging death cases reported since 1993, out of which 88 deaths occurred in the last three years, the death toll is continuously on the rise. Of the 15 States and Union Territories that submitted details to the Ministry, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of sewer deaths with 144 cases, followed by Gujarat with 131. Of the 88 cases reported in 2017, 2018, and 2019, till June 14, compensation was pending in 52 cases. Being the latest, In 2013, the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act came into force. The Act says no one can employ a person for manual scavenging and lays down punishments for those who do, although no conviction regarding this has been reported yet. The law is said to be toothless as it leaves people helpless. The earlier Act gave the District Magistrate power to resolve all the cases, but now If the assigned public official is not doing his duty of identifying manual scavengers and processing their rehabilitation, there is no way to get them out.
Technology to solve the problem:
Sewer Croc, Bandicoot, and 14 other machines are in various stages of development and deployment, with no help from the Centre. Bandicoot is India’s first Manhole cleaning robot in India created by Genrobotic Innovations. Bandicoot has two structures. One is the robotic unit with an arm and four legs that enters the manhole and handles the cleaning operation. The other is a control panel unit that stays outside the manhole with the person controlling or monitoring Bandicoot.
The robotic unit has a fixed, waterproof, night-vision camera that transmits 4K resolution videos and images in real-time, even in the presence of water. Sewer Croc, is less than half a meter long, fitted with sturdy blades, and spring-loaded wheels that let it maneuver narrow sewage pipes. It comes with a rover camera that rotates 360 degrees to locate debris. The machine, made of corrosion-resistant steel, is powered by a high-velocity water jet. While Bandicoot weighs up to 60Kgs, Sewer blades can be lifted with hands. In some parts of India, trucks are fitted with pumping units that can clear up to seven cesspits a day. Such trucks have been fondly dubbed “honey-suckers” to describe the sludge that they extract and deposit on farmland on the outskirts of cities, where it is covered and allowed to mature into manure, which can be used as fertilizer in agriculture practices.
Men and women involved in manual scavenging need to be rescued from this life-threatening social evil. While just liberating them would not be enough as they face atrocities when they deny doing the work, we have to ensure their protection and also provide alternative employment opportunities. Technology is vital to solving this problem, but it is not enough, as the problem is socially more complex. So many NGOs are spreading awareness and liberating these workers. Laws should be made more effective in order to eradicate the issue. Building the toilets is not enough for clean India; the government should fund more into R&D to innovate technologies that could clean them without human intervention.
BY Prajyot Shendage