UNDERSTANDING MANUAL SCAVENGING IN INDIA
The advancement of technology and the rise in moral or ethical standards are the two units used to assess the evolution of society. Laws are created to safeguard society and provide equality for all. There are also a few laws that guarantee equality regardless of geopolitical or cultural differences. They’re referred to as human rights. A few social groups experience losses as a result of the aforementioned disparities. These groups are known as susceptible or vulnerable groups. Manual scavengers are a part of this vulnerable group. India has a long history of manual scavenging, which is predominantly done by Dalits, also known as “untouchables,” who are thought to be at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system. In different states, they go by different names, such as Chuhada, Mehatar, Lalbegi, Har, Hadi, Thoti, Zadmalli, and Mela, among others. It is debatable whether manual scavenging is considered slavery or work.
On the one hand, some claim that it is a kind of slavery since it takes advantage of helpless people by making them perform humiliating and dangerous work. The people who perform manual scavenging are frequently not given any equipment or protective clothing, and they are not paid a reasonable salary for their labour. Additionally, they are denied fundamental human dignity and exposed to several health risks. On the other hand, some people contend that manual scavenging counts as work because it gives marginalised and jobless individuals a means of support. They contend that if manual scavenging is outlawed, many people would be left jobless. The removal of human waste, which is crucial for preserving public health and cleanliness, is another way that manual scavenging benefits society. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that manual scavenging is still a highly exploitative and brutal practice that violates people’s fundamental human rights, notwithstanding this. The practice has to be outlawed, and people who engage in it ought to be given access to alternate sources of income.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines slavery as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Manual scavenging can be considered a form of modern-day slavery, as the workers are forced to engage in it without any choice or consent. If we analyse manual scavenging in the light of the said definition by ILO, the labourers are compelled to participate in manual scavenging owing to their social and economic situations, and therefore manual scavenging might be viewed as a type of slavery. They are compelled to clean human faeces without any protection or pay since they have no other career options.
EXISTING LABOUR LAWS AND THEIR EFFECTIVENESS
Even while manual scavenging occurs everywhere in the world, it is most prevalent in India. Manual scavenging is governed by a caste-based hierarchical system. Not only are human rights violated by the practice of manual scavenging, but rights provided by the Indian Constitution. The right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to live with dignity, is guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Manual scavenging violates the workers’ right to a dignified existence, and therefore it violates the said Article. As stated in Article 21 of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, human dignity is an unalienable right that is a component of the basic right to live in India. According to one interpretation, “dignity” is receiving the same treatment, legal protection, and respect from everyone. It is a widely acknowledged right, recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 1, 22, and 23.
The Supreme Court ordered the government to take measures in 2014 to end manual scavenging and guarantee the rehabilitation of those engaged in it. The government was also tasked by the court with finding and prosecuting individuals who hire manual scavengers and giving them alternate means of support. Despite that, we can see that the failure of government schemes and laws to protect the manual scavengers has somewhat acted as a catalyst to the existing slave-like conditions of the manual scavengers. It can be rightly said that Manual scavenging is akin to slavery and is not an occupation. Failure of laws and government schemes are not the sole criteria. Slavery and bonded work are undoubtedly examples of manual scavenging. Global non-profit group Human Rights Watch released a report on manual scavenging. They cite an activist who said that moving human waste manually is similar to slavery rather than an occupation.
In addition, several other causes of why manual scavenging isn’t a job instead is a type of enslavement instead:
In conclusion, although sanitation employees do not hold shackles in their hands, they are tormented and put under pressure. There have been so many laws passed for the benefit of our town, yet they have had no discernible impact. The average life expectancy in India is 69 years, compared to fewer than 50 years for these labourers. They are exposed to risks and work in hazardous situations. These communities are disregarded by Indian civilization since they never existed. We have observed a wide variety of strikes. Imagine if the sweeper community went on strike, even for five days: no one would be able to use the restrooms, sewer lines would be blocked, and there would be a strong odour of rubbish coming from the houses. Dr B.R. Ambedkar stated that regardless of whether a person engages in scavenging or not, they are inherently scavengers in India due to their birth rather than their vocation. This should make us wonder what we’re doing wrong as a country if we can’t recognise the hardship of these manual scavengers.
Written by –
(3rd Year Law student at, the Institute of Law,
Nirma University, Ahmedabad)