Saturday, 30 January 2010

Manual scavenging − again

I’ve just come across WaterAid India’s excellent 2009 report Burden of Inheritance: Can we stop manual scavenging ? Yes, but first we need to accept it exists. Here’s an excerpt from the Preface:

The issue of manual scavenging in India evokes reactions ranging from disbelief and disgust to despair. It is widely believed to be a social practice rather than an occupation, which has its roots in the caste system of India. Almost all scavengers are Dalit and most of them are women. They are forced into this practice from an early age. Their untouchability and loathsome occupation forces them into living a life of indignity.

and one from the Executive Summary, which has the subtitle “Let’s stop the stink”:

It is very hard not to feel less human while talking about manual scavenging. More than three lakh [300,000] people, mostly women, are consigned to this inhuman occupation in India. In India it is illegal to employ or to indulge in manual scavenging. But in practice, it is very much present across the country irrespective of states’ performance on social and economic development parameters.

Why have we not been able to eradicate manual scavenging? This report – Burden of Inheritance – tries to seek answers to this question. To get to the bottom of this scourge, the report has first explored the question: why are people continuing in this occupation despite availability of other dignified livelihood sources? Why is manual scavenging in practice in towns and cities where other cleaner options for survival exist? When there are feasible and viable technological alternatives to dry toilets, one of the drivers of this occupation, why does the practice continue?

The report uncovers a complex socio-economic web that has trapped the community into this practice. Socially, we need to treat the manual scavengers as humans first, ensuring the fundamental human rights to them. The Indian caste system may be dying out in public perception but for the manual scavengers its grip is as strong as it used to be in the distant past. The report finds convincingly that this single attitude change will trigger a sequence of desirable outcomes for betterment of the community. There must be serious efforts to encourage and make available alternative employment opportunities for the manual scavengers. Examples cited in this report do point out that wherever such efforts have been made, there have been positive changes.

The whole report is a definite ‘must-read’ and let’s hope it’s read in all the ‘high places’ in India by all the ‘high’ officials (who are meant to be servants of their people).

Well done, WaterAid India!