AN INTERNATIONAL rights group is calling for reform after it was found that hundreds of thousands of low-caste Indians are still using their bare hands to clean human excrement from roads and millions of dry-pit toilets across the country, despite laws against it.
Ancient and deep-rooted caste discrimination has kept manual scavengers, as they are known, from escaping their traditional role as waste cleaners, Human Rights Watch said in a report.
Scavenging is mostly carried out by a sub-group of the dalits, an outcast community also known as “untouchables” within India’s ancient system of caste hierarchies.
They are often impoverished, shunned by society and forbidden from touching Indians from other castes, or even their food.
That discrimination, as well as chronic debt, blocks them from other jobs and opportunities, Human Rights Watch said.
“When you have no-one to clean, only then do you build a proper toilet. That’s not happening here, because there is a community that can be made to clean it,” Meenakshi Ganguly, the New York-based group’s South Asia director said. “It’s just so appalling, so no-one is going to dispute that manual scavenging must end. But then, they need to make it happen.”
There is no firm number for the number of Indians still scavenging, earning as little as one rupee (about 1p) a day, or sometimes only food.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network estimates that 1.3 million people are stuck in what it calls the “forced labour” or “slavery” of manual scavenging. However, the government said last week that it had counted only 11,000 scavengers in 23 of India’s 29 states.
Human Rights Watch estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of untouchables manually cleaning human excrement, Ms Ganguly said, “especially if you also count those cleaning train tracks, clogged drains or septic tanks. No-one is counting them.”
Untouchables use their hands or small straw brooms to gather the waste into baskets, which they then carry away on their heads.
In terms of toilets, there are about 9.6 million pit latrines being cleared despite laws banning dry toilets, as well as manual scavenging itself, according to an estimate given earlier this year by India’s Supreme Court.
The government, however, claims there are only 2.4 million dry toilets.
Nationwide, at least two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people still defecate in the open.
Diarrheal diseases kill about 700,000 children in India every year while also contributing to widespread malnutrition and diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
Prime minister Narendra Modi made sanitation a plank of this year’s election campaign by saying India needs “toilets not temples”.
Human Rights Watch called on officials to get serious about ending the practice of manual scavenging.
Ms Ganguly said: “It’s a solvable issue. This thing can go away. There is the money; there are programmes devised. It all just has to be implemented.”