Advancing the rights of women manual garbage collectors
Women engaged in manual recovery continue to experience systemic discrimination and are denied access to alternative livelihoods. Concerted efforts must be made to rehabilitate them.
Manual cleaning is a caste-based profession that results in discrimination and atrocities against those who engage in it. Generations of families marginalized communities in India have been forced to continue in this profession due to social ostracism and the lack of alternatives. Despite legislative and judicial interventions since 1993 and the enactment of a new law in 2013, manual cleaning continues in practice. People, especially women, working in this profession face systemic exclusion and find it difficult to access health care, education, social protection and social security systems. They work for negligible wages and access to alternative livelihoods remains difficult for them, despite government programs to do so.
A survey was carried out in four states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh) to highlight these problems. The baseline survey had 1,686 respondents and the end-of-action investigation covered 123 female manual garbage collectors (WMS) in six locations in two states — Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.
The conclusions of the end-of-action investigation reaffirm the caste and gender nature of manual cleaning. It also draws attention to the level of knowledge of legal provisions for people exercising this profession.
The link between caste, gender and manual cleaning
All survey respondents were from Dalit communities, such as Valmiki, Dom, Hari and others.
According to the survey, 27.6 percent of WMSs were still engaged in cleaning dry latrines, coming into direct contact with human faeces. These women are informal workers, do not have a fixed salary and are not paid on time. This was evident since 20.3 percent of the WMS surveyed were unemployed and had no income. The average monthly salary of 64% of WMS ranged from INR 240 to INR 4,500.
This despite the fact that the Minister of Labor and Employment mandated the basic salary for those employed in sweeping and cleaning activities is 350 INR per day.
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Difficulty finding other livelihoods
Several interviewees said they tried to seek other livelihoods to move away from manual recovery, but to no avail. Some have succeeded in being employed as guards or cleaners in domestic, public or institutional environments. Their job, however, still included cleaning the toilets.
They were subjected to various forms of discrimination, which had an impact on their well-being. The communities where they lived often had no connection to domestic running water and they had limited access to standpipes that provide water. They are generally prohibited from eating with other people and must use separate glasses and utensils in restaurants, in cases where they are allowed to enter. Women involved in manual cleaning have experienced triple oppression – as members of a caste involved in manual cleaning, as women and as poor people with little or no formal education.
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Access to services and plans
All respondents had Aadhaar cards, 99.18 percent had voter cards, and 90.24 percent had ration cards. Despite this, several of them stated that they were not enlisted as women engaged in manual cleaning activities under The ban on employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation law (PEMSR law). Even with the required documents, many of them have not yet been registered as persons employed as manual garbage collectors. As a result, they were excluded from several commitments made under the PEMSR Law and Self-employment program for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers (SRMS).
For example, 9.76 percent of those surveyed indicated that their state government had not issued ration cards to households eligible to purchase subsidized food grains from the public distribution system. As several WMS did not have the required documents to meet the eligibility criteria, they could not access essential items such as wheat, rice and sugar.
Knowledge of legal provisions
The majority of respondents (93.93 percent) knew that manual cleaning is prohibited by law and many (77.06 percent) were aware of the rules and provisions of the PEMSR law. In addition, 62.88 percent knew their jobs were illegal.
Only 27.77 percent of those surveyed had knowledge of government programs specific to their communities, such as rehabilitation and scholarship opportunities. When asked about the rehabilitation provisions under the RPEMS Act, respondents indicated that they had faced several challenges. According to the law, the authorities are supposed to identify the number of people engaged in manual cleaning and take measures to ensure the rehabilitation. However, among the WMS surveyed, this did not happen. Almost 42.69% of them had filed an application or self-declaration with the local authority so that they could be identified as a manual scavenger. Only 6.5 percent of those surveyed were on the official list of manual scavengers published by the Indian government. In addition, 47.1 percent of respondents had requested a one-time cash assistance program under the SRMS. Of this total, only 2.4% received the sum.
Systemic measures to eliminate manual scanning
The complete eradication of manual excavation as a practice can only be achieved once its caste-based nature is recognized and systemic measures to rehabilitate and provide adequate compensation are implemented.
1.Improve the legal framework
The definition of manual scanning in the PEMSR law should be broadened. It should also recognize the generational and caste-based nature of the profession, and expand the criteria for registering people under the law, with clear guidelines for performers. At the same time, the application of the provisions of the law is essential.
2. Better mechanisms for data collection, monitoring and accountability
The government should systematically collect reliable data on people engaged in manual cleaning. This will allow better measures for the rehabilitation and enforcement of the PEMSR Law. While the law requires every state and union territory to have a state commission for Safai Karamacharis, only eight of the 28 states have it in place. Thus, it is imperative that state and district level commissions be established for better monitoring of the PEMSR law.
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3. Provide adequate funding
The SRMS should have adequate budget allocation and use by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Departments such as labor, urban and rural development, health, education and others should be given responsibility for ensuring the improvement of communities engaged in this work.
4. Increase the rehabilitation allowance
Currently, grants for the rehabilitation of WMS under the SRMS are capped at INR 40,000 per individual. However, this amount is insufficient to create viable businesses. The National Human Rights Commission also recommended that this amount be revised to INR 1,000,000. A faster and more efficient process for clearing claims and disbursing claims and one-time loans must also be put in place.
5. Standardize the use of protective equipment and technology
Central and state governments should promote and mandate the supply and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for all sanitation work. They must also prioritize sustainable technological alternatives to eradicate all forms of manual cleaning. Increased budget allocations for wastewater treatment infrastructure or faecal sludge treatment will allow mechanization of the emptying, cleaning and transport of toilet tanks.
6. Coordinate the action of civil society
Civil society organizations must make a coordinated effort to improve the health, safety and dignity of WMS. Organizations working in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector should come together and work collaboratively with unions and government to ensure that the livelihoods and human rights of those involved in manual recovery are protected.
This article was originally published on India’s Development Review.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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