(New Delhi) – The Indian government should end “manual scavenging” – the cleaning of human waste by communities considered low-caste – by ensuring that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The government should implement existing legislation aimed to assist manual scavenging community members find alternative, sustainable livelihoods.
The 96-page report, “Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India,” documents the coercive nature of manual scavenging. Across India, castes that work as “manual scavengers” collect human excrement on a daily basis, and carry it away in cane baskets for disposal. Women from this caste usually clean dry toilets in homes, while men do the more physically demanding cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The report describes the barriers people face in leaving manual scavenging, including threats of violence and eviction from local residents but also threats, harassment, and unlawful withholding of wages by local officials.
“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”
In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 135 people, including more than 100 people currently or formerly working as manual scavengers, in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Women who clean dry toilets in rural areas often are not paid cash wages, but instead as a customary practice receive leftover food, grain during harvest, old clothes during festival times, and access to community and private land for grazing livestock and collecting firewood – all at the discretion of the households they serve. In areas where “untouchability” practices are intact, food is dropped into their hands or thrown in front of them.
Local authorities are frequently complicit in the discrimination against manual scavengers, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which government village councils and municipalities have engaged in caste-based recruitment to clean open defecation areas. Those who do this work also suffer discrimination in other facets of their lives, including access to education, to community water sources, and to government housing and employment benefits. Human Rights Watch found that the police and other authorities fail to act on complaints by manual scavengers who have been threatened with violence, eviction and other offenses.
“People work as manual scavengers because their caste is expected to fulfill this role, and are typically unable to get any other work,” said Ganguly. “This practice is considered one of the worst surviving symbols of untouchability because it reinforces the social stigma that these castes are untouchable and perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion.”
The rights abuses suffered by people who practice manual scavenging are mutually reinforcing, Human Rights Watch said. Repeatedly handling human excrement without protection can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning. These conditions are exacerbated by widespread malnutrition and inability to access health services.
There are currently no comprehensive government surveys that accurately account for the prevalence of manual scavenging in the country. Accepting the lack of proper surveys, in March 2014, the Supreme Court of India confirmed however that that it is “abundantly clear that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated.”
Manual Scavenging Violates Laws and Constitution
India’s Constitution bans caste-based discrimination known as untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging. In 2013, the Indian parliament enacted The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (the 2013 Act) outlawing all manual excrement cleaning. The 2013 Act also recognized a constitutional obligation to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by these communities by providing alternate livelihood and other assistance.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that manual scavenging violates international human rights law. The court called for effective remedy. The new Indian government elected in May has pledged to address the needs of India’s marginalized communities, but has yet to take any new measures to end manual scavenging.
People who have left manual scavenging, even those who had the support of community-based civil society initiatives, report significant barriers to accessing housing, employment, and support from existing government programs. Notably, under the 2013 Act, rehabilitation provisions are left to be implemented under existing central and state government schemes – the same set of programs that have not thus far succeeded in ending manual scavenging.
To ensure that entitlements under the 2013 Act – including financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, and other important legal and programmatic assistance – are available to manual scavenging communities, the government should undertake a complete assessment and audit of all relevant schemes currently in place, Human Rights Watch said. The government should then work in consultation with communities engaged in manual scavenging and civil society organizations to create a comprehensive program that corresponds with the provisions of the 2013 Act.
“Caste-based custom, backed by coercion, is still binding people to manual scavenging, and that demands government intervention,” Ganguly said. “India’s new government has the means and an obligation to bury this rights abusing practice forever.”