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!

Urban agriculture

If you have condominial sewerage (or any sewerage, for that matter) you have the opportunity to practise wastewater-fed agriculture – using treated wastewater to raise fish and/or (but preferably ‘and’) irrigate crops. In urban areas this is termed ‘wastewater-fed urban agriculture’. IDRC Canada has published many reports and books on urban agriculture (UA) in general and wastewater-fed UA in particular – for example, Wastewater Use in Irrigated Agriculture: Confronting the Livelihood and Environmental Realities (2004) and, just out this month, Wastewater Irrigation and Health: Assessing and Mitigating Risk in Low-income Countries (though the hyperlinks to the chapters are not yet in – in the meantime there’s the pdf of the whole book here; hard copies can be purchased from Earthscan). See also Urban Agriculture and, more generally, Wastewater Use in Agriculture and Wastewater Use in Aquaculture.

The World Health Organization has published Guidelines for the Safe Use of Wastewater, Excreta and Greywater in agriculture and aquaculture (3rd edition, 2006).

Remember: “Wastewater is too valuable to waste”.

Sulabh toilets?

Read this (from ‘Sanitation Updates’ here):

Experts from the UN and Asian Development Bank (ADB) today [27 January 2010] asked developing nations to adopt low cost Sulabh toilet to streamline their sanitation system.

The Sulabh technology is one of the solutions to the sanitation crisis and this low cost Indian method should be utilised in developing countries,” senior ADB official A Thapan said at a follow-up conference of the International Year of Sanitation being organised here
[Tokyo] by UN and Government of Japan.

Thomas Steltzer, Assistant Secretary-General, UN, also advocated Sulabh model for streamlining of sanitation system in developing and third world countries.

[The ‘Sulabh toilets’ are described on the Sulabh website.]

High praise indeed, but is it informed praise? I have my doubts. Anyone really familiar with communal sanitation facilities would prefer the SPARC model over the Sulabh model – read Community-designed, built and managed toilet blocks in Indian cities (Environment & Urbanization, October 2003). See the SPARC website and Community Sanitation Blocks, and also blog of 28 January 2008.

SPARC, The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, is an absolutely brilliant Indian NGO that “that supports two people’s movements − the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan (MM) [‘Mahila Milan’ means “Women Together” in Hindi]. NSDF and MM organise hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers and pavement dwellers to address issues related to urban poverty, and collectively produce solutions for affordable housing and sanitation.” In truth, an approach that’s all together much better than Sulabh’s, though the Sulabh model does of course have its place in the provision of decent public (as opposed to community-based) sanitation blocks.

Who said “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”?

[Actually it was Alexander Pope (1688−1744) in An Essay on Criticism published in 1709, although what he said was “A little learning is a dangerous thing”.]