Dalit woman sparks hope for manual scavengers during COVID-19 pandemic

Life has not been kind to Ranjitha. In all her 40 years, moments that gave her hope have been few and far between. She lives in a slum settled by manual scavengers in Kachiguda suburb of Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana. She was married at 23 to a man who earned his living as a manual scavenger and whose persistent dowry demands meant continued abuse that culminated in her being thrown out of the house. Three kids later, her husband, in her words, “left me forever even though my third child was a son after two daughters.”

Ranjitha was forced to go back to her maternal home where the commerce graduate, for want of better opportunity, joined her mother in manual scavenging work to support herself and her family. Manual scavenging is a centuries-old abhorrent practice of humans cleaning excrement from private and public toilets – one that still continues despite stringent legal provisions to end it. Table 1 estimates the number of dry latrines – toilets that do not flush and require daily manual cleaning – in India.

The practice of manual scavenging
The inhumane practice is what millions more like Ranjitha, who belongs to the scheduled caste/Dalit community, rely on for a living in India. Manual scavengers are considered the lowest in this regressive social stratification and treated as “untouchables among
untouchables.” As many as 95% of manual scavengers are women, and they are not only denied basic rights but also confront multiple challenges in all spheres of life. A casteist, patriarchal and exclusionary socio-economic construct has ensured they remain at the
margins of society.

Table 1: Number of Dry Latrines in India

1 Dry latrines cleaned by humans 794,390
2 Toilets where excreta flushed in open drains* 1,314,652
3 Toilets where excreta cleaned up by animals / left to be cleaned by humans eventually* 497,236
4 TOTAL 2,606,278
5 Indian Railways is the biggest violator as it continues to employ manual scavengers to clean their tracks; IR has 13,452 trains and 74,003 passenger coaches, making for a total of 296,012 latrines. People also practice open defecation on train tracks. IR has a total track length of 121,407 kms*

* Census of India 2011 only includes data in row 1 and does not recognize the categories and numbers provided in rows 2, 3 and 5.

Working to end manual scavenging
In 1993, the Indian Parliament passed a law banning manual scavenging but did not include penal provisions for those who hire people for such work. In 2013, due to a concerted legal campaign by Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a network of about 4,800 volunteers committed to the vision of ending this practice and restoring dignity to manual scavengers, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013 was enacted. The law made it an offense to engage a person as a manual scavenger and doing so carried up to a year in jail and/or a fine of Rs 50,000 or $670 as punishment. However, in the nine years since its enactment there have been no convictions under this law. This is despite the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment identifying 53,398 manual scavengers across the country.

The 2013 law also provided that manual scavengers be given a one-time cash assistance (OTCA) of Rs.40,000 or $539 each, and access to training to get them suitable employment. Additionally, they are eligible for a low-interest loan of up to Rs.15 lakh or $20,230 each to start a new venture. The National Safai Karamchari Finance Development Corporation (NSKFDC), which is the nodal agency tasked to address manual scavenging, in its 22nd Annual Report states that it released Rs.72.32 crore or $9.75 million in 2018-19 as OTCA to 18,081 manual scavengers. However, a specific scheme by the NSKFDC for women sanitation workers/scavengers and their daughters, Mahila Adhikarita Yojana, has been able to cover only 5,602 women beneficiaries in the last three years. It is clear that women like Ranjitha and her mother have not benefitted from such initiatives.

It is also worth noting that the 2020-21 Union budget allocated the same amount of Rs. 110 crore or $14.83 million as it did last year for rehabilitating manual scavengers, even though 2019 recorded the highest number of fatalities among sewerage workers in recent years.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic
Ranjitha’s life took another turn when she was diagnosed with endometriosis and had to undergo surgery. Her mother decided it was time she stopped working as a manual scavenger and enrolled her in a computer training program, which equipped her with basic computer skills. She soon found employment in a private firm doing medical transcription for a monthly salary of Rs.4000 or $53. After ten years of employment, she was earning Rs.14,000 or $188 a month. But then COVID-19 hit, and the government announced a nation-wide lockdown with just a few hours notice. Her employer fired everyone and she lost her job. Ranjitha found herself yet again in an extremely vulnerable situation, with no savings, no job and the immediate pressure to find food to feed her family.

Mehthar gully (or alley) where Ranjitha lives is home to manual scavengers and sanitation workers who have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 in many ways: Those working in hospitals or contracted by the local municipalities are forced to work extra hours with no extra allowances, transportation or protective gear. Manual scavengers are also expected to carry out other “polluting” tasks, including disposing of dead animals, cleaning placentas after delivery and various funeral-related activities. Those employed by private households to clean their toilets lost their job due to the misconception that they are unclean and would transmit the virus. Ranjitha dismally noted, “Earlier, some of our people working as cooks used to hide the fact that they resided in Mehthar gully else they wouldn’t have been allowed to cook. Now, this virus has again made us untouchable. It is the rich who brought the virus with them on airplanes, but the impact of this virus has been the worst for us. Men will easily get into septic tank cleaning, but women won’t find any work. We all have taken loans and our indebtedness is increasing. All our people have been without work and wages for the last five months.”

The government announced a package to provide relief, but it has not reached those most in need. Says Ranjitha, “The local administration gave us 1 kg good quality rice, 6 kg low quality rice, half kg pulses and 2 masks. We are 13 members in our family. How will this be enough? They are telling us to follow hygiene, sanitize hands and wear masks, but when we don’t have money to even buy food, how can we purchase sanitizer and masks?”

Mobilizing the community


Given the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that unfolded as a result of the policy response to COVID-19, SKA, like many other NGOs and networks, facilitated relief distribution and crisis management to people in distress in 11 states across the country. Out of these 11, the International Budget Partnership (IBP) has supported SKA to provide relief to 1,000 households across four states: 258 households in Delhi, 230 in Telangana, 258 in Andhra Pradesh and 300 in Tamil Nadu. Rough estimates by the network peg their total outreach to 8,000 households. This effort is one piece of SKA’s campaign, as part of IBP’s SPARK initiative, to bolster the leadership and agency of women manual scavengers to demand their entitlements and advocate for better implementation of government schemes.

SKA has identified 116 women leaders in 30 settlements across four states of Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Ranjitha is one of the 116. During the lockdown in April, SKA volunteers reached out to Ranjitha and asked her to lead relief distribution efforts in her community. She made a list of all eligible families in the slum settlement and offered her home as the makeshift depot to store relief supplies. SKA volunteers guided her on basic distribution protocol. In the words of Mr. Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of SKA, “For the first time, in my 35 years of movement background, I am involved in relief distribution as this crisis has redefined our understanding of poverty. Still we have tried not to follow the traditional approach where those who distribute are powerful and those who receive provisions are weak. We have tried to organize this in a power-neutral model.”

Ranjitha’s eyes lit up as she spoke about her role, “I am so proud to have done the distribution. People in my community look up to me now, come and seek my advice on tackling problems that we face such as children’s education and access to government schemes. Even though I am separated from my husband, I could sustain because I was educated, but all our people are not educated so skilling them is important. We need to come together as part of SKA and start thinking about next steps.” Ranjitha’s words made us realize that not only does she feel valued but also has begun to think about solutions to help her community, to mobilize them into action. This might just be the spark to start the revolution for a more just and equitable India.

The author would like to acknowledge the support of Deepthi Sukumar, Chandana Chakrabarti and Aakanksha of SKA in writing this blog.

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