ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Beginning of the End

Manual scavenging persists, but community and political mobilisation of workers has initiated change.

Only those who are in denial are surprised by the continued existence in India of casteism and inhuman practices associated with stigmatisation, despite institutions of the state decreeing their abolition. But progress has been made in fits and starts, and agency – in the form of community and political mobilisation – has played a role in their slow removal. The horrific practice of manual scavenging – the worst form of untouchability and casteism under which certain communities are forced to carry human waste, and clean dry latrines and sewers – is one where the agency of community and political mobilisation has begun to have an impact.

Despite the enactment of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, manual scavenging continues across the country. Apart from having to earn their livelihood by manually carrying or cleaning excreta, the workers are also discriminated against by stigmatisation and are forcibly hidden from the public sphere. Newspaper reports have suggested that 99% of those involved in manual scavenging are dalits and among them 95% women. In 1995, according to a Planning Commission study, more than six lakh people were engaged in scavenging. And the practice is not restricted to the private sphere. The Indian Railways, argue activists, employ a large number of people for manually clearing the tracks of sewage and human waste. For years after the legislation of the 1993 Act, there was little punishment for the hiring of workers for manual scavenging. But things have begun to change for the better.

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