MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A flagship government program to modernize India’s sanitation has failed to tackle the practice of low caste women clearing faeces by hand, and has even exacerbated the problem by building toilets not connected to water supplies, campaigners say.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, with much fanfare after he took office in 2014, sweeping a Delhi street with a broom. Since then, thousands of toilets have been built across the country.
But Dalit communities, especially women, are still forced to be manual scavengers, a euphemism for clearing faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand, despite laws to end the practice. The workers have it harder now, activists said.
“Swachh Bharat has diverted attention from ending manual scavenging, and makes it seem like the whole country is cleaning. But if that’s the case, then why are people still dying in septic tanks,” said activist Bezwada Wilson.
“There is also no discussion of caste, when nearly all sanitation workers are Dalits, and no recognition of the abuse they suffer,” said Wilson, who won a Ramon Magsaysay Award last year for his efforts to end manual scavenging.
Manual scavenging has long been an occupation thrust upon the Dalit community, the lowest ranked in India’s caste system.
At least 90 percent of the estimated one million manual scavengers are women, who have to clean public and private dry latrines with barely any safety equipment.
India, which banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, has passed several laws to end the practice, yet Dalit communities continue to face threats of violence if they try to give it up for other jobs.
More than 4 million individual toilets and about 223,000 community toilets have been built since the launch of Clean India mission to make the country open-defecation free.
Many toilets lack water connections or a continuous supply of water, and are not linked to the sewage network, said Wilson, whose own family members were manual scavengers for generations.
Rights groups will make a representation to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to water and sanitation, who is visiting India from Oct. 27, said Ramesh Nathan, general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.
With pressure from the Clean India Mission, safety norms are flouted, and dozens of workers have died in septic tanks from toxic fumes, said Nathan.
Most deaths are unreported or claimed as accidental, so the employer is not liable to pay the compensation of 1 million rupees ($15,000), he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A senior government official acknowledges manual scavenging is prevalent, but said Clean India ensures workers’ safety.
“We have already asked all states to convert dry toilets, and we recommend mechanical equipment for cleaning of toilets,” said J. B. Ravinder, a joint adviser for Swachh Bharat Urban.
“If manual cleaning is to be done, it has to be done with proper supervision and with the necessary safety equipment.”
($1 = 65.0454 Indian rupees)
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.