New law to ban India’s ‘untouchable’ toilet cleaners



Agence France Presse

Published — Thursday 22 November 2012

Last update 21 November 2012 9:24 pm

| نسخة PDF Print News | A A

With both hands holding the basket of human excrement on her head, widowed grandmother Kela walks through a stream of sewage, up a mound of waste and then dumps the filth while cursing.
“Nobody even pays us a decent wage!” she spits as she rakes mud and rubbish over her newly deposited pile, one of several she drops in the course of her working day cleaning toilets as a “manual scavenger” in India.
She and around 20 other women in the village of Nekpur, 60 kilometers (40 miles) from New Delhi but a world away from its relative wealth, remove the contents of toilets daily using just their hands and a plastic shovel.
Already illegal under a largely ineffective 1993 law, the government has promised to have another go at stamping out the practice with new legislation set to come up in the last parliament session of the year, which opens this week.
Kela and her fellow scavengers in Nekpur live in a handful of mud houses, isolated from the rest of the village. They are considered low-caste even by fellow low-caste Hindus and are seen as the ultimate “untouchables.”
Discrimination has eased recently but still they are prevented from keeping livestock and are sometimes stopped from walking near powerful people.
“My life has passed doing this,” Kela, a withered illiterate woman thought to be around 60, explained to AFP.
She started after she married — she thinks she was aged 11 or 12, but can’t be sure — and is in no doubt about the undignified nature of her profession.
“The smell goes to your head. I often feel sick. After all, we are also humans.”
One of the homes she visited was Parveen’s, a widowed mother whose small brick construction and concrete yard is home to nine people and three generations.
The toilet — a brick wall around a hole above a pit containing ash and dirt — is emptied from an access point outside on the street, where Kela scoops out the “night soil” into her wicker basket.
“We feel bad about it,” says Parveen when asked about the women’s plight. “We pity these women and sometimes we try to help them.”
She says she pays Kela one piece of bread (a chapati) a day and five kilograms of food grains a month. No money is exchanged, as is the case for other scavengers.
Nekpur, a few hours bumpy drive from Delhi, is the sort of rural backwater found in Northern India where the estimated 200,000 scavengers nationwide continue to toil.
Swarms of mosquitoes hover above open drains as naked or barely clothed children play on the streets. Buffaloes outnumber vehicles in the streets. The new legislation modifies the 1993 law — which criminalized the scavengers — raising the prospect of an end to a practice seen as a medieval throwback with no place in modernizing India.
The new law would prohibit the building of non-flushing toilets that must be emptied by hand, and prescribes a one-year jail term and/or a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (900 dollars) for anyone who employs a manual scavenger.
It also requires local authorities to monitor the implementation of the law and sets out tough sanctions if municipalities employ sewer cleaners without protective gear and equipment.
Men wearing only underpants and equipped with just a hoe and a wooden bar can still be found in some towns heading into the stinky depths of septic tanks and sewers.
The national railways — described recently as “the largest open toilet in the world” by a federal minister — are also often picked clean by the scavengers.

Bindeshwar Pathak, of the sanitation charity Sulabh International, says the legislation could prove helpful, but that the final test will be on the ground.
“In India there are many laws that have not helped so far, like (the one to prevent) dowry. Dowry cases are still going on, there is child labor,” he said.
“It needs to go both ways: on one hand, the legislation, the other is implementation.”
He says there has not been a single successful prosecution under the 1993 Act.
Other activists say public funds intended to retrain scavengers are held back because of bureaucratic inertia or corruption.
“In our democracy, it’s a numbers game. If a community is small, no-one cares for them,” said Vidya Rawat, director of the Delhi-based Social Development Foundation, which works with scavengers.
He says the only solution is for the government to find jobs for the scavengers, requiring an extension of a vast affirmative action program which reserves positions for the low-castes and marginalized tribes.
“Rehabilitation programs don’t work,” he added. “If a community woman leaves her work and opts to open a tea shop, no one will go to drink at her place.”
The persistence of manual scavenging can be traced to deep-rooted factors which continue to afflict India despite three decades of high economic growth.
Caste-based discrimination and the notion of “untouchability” in rural India persists more than 60 years after independence hero Mahatma Gandhi called it the “greatest blot upon Hinduism.”
Manual scavenging also points to the lack of investment in modern sewerage systems by a weak state which struggles to provide basic services.
A 2011 survey by the Central Pollution Control Board revealed only 160 out of nearly 8,000 towns had sewerage systems and a sewage treatment plant.
But the women in Nekpur are among the lucky ones in their profession, however, benefiting from a rehabilitation progamme with a chance of success.
Since AFP visited in June, they have been retrained by Sulabh and are now making soaps and candles, holding out hope that they and their children might escape a destiny of humiliation and disease.

What's happening around Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: The $22-billion Riyadh Metro project is going on according to the plan despite the fact that many global projects are faltering.“There are many stalled projects all over the world and not in the Kingdom alone, but the metro project in the Sau...
JEDDAH: Four members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Haia) were stabbed by a youth who was allegedly trying to blackmail a girl in Jeddah. The incident happened on Tuesday night and the four officers, who sus...
RIYADH: A recent report released by the Ministry of Labor revealed that the number of violations registered on the ministry’s electronic program “Together for Monitoring” in the months of December 2015 and January 2016 amounted to 484, of which 157 w...
RIYADH: Health Minister Khalid Al-Falih visited the medical complex in Thuwal, near Jeddah, on Tuesday. The facility was set up by Saudi Aramco, whose chairman is the health minister himself.According to the minister, the complex provides primary hea...
JEDDAH: A number of Shoura Council members have voiced objections to some imams who express their personal opinions during Friday sermons.The members asked the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to supervise the sermons to make sure they were written by spe...
MADINAH: Street vendors near the Prophet’s Mosque pose a risk to the country’s reputation and economy besides blocking the way of service cars, Red Crescent and Civil Defense vehicles, an expert has said.Ninety-eight percent of these street merchants...
RIYADH: Appropriate action has been taken against the Haia members who were involved in beating up a girl opposite the Nakheel shopping mall here recently, but the girl was also at fault, a Haia official has clarified.“A probe has revealed that the g...
I am from the east of France but moved to Saudi Arabia from Paris in 1990. I worked for a princess as a French language tutor. I was young and single. I thought it was very exotic and mysterious. I lived in a palace. I left Saudi Arabia in 1992 and c...
JEDDAH: The Pakistan Repatriation Council (PRC) held a symposium on Kashmir and the obligation of Muslim world toward Kashmiris.It was presided by Ali Al-Ghamdi, a former Saudi diplomat. Other guests and speakers at the event were Shahid Nayeem, pres...
DAMMAM: A total of 627 kidney transplant surgeries were performed in the Kingdom last year, bringing the number of kidney transplants, performed since the beginning of the organ donation program, to 9,000 surgeries, said Dr. Faisal Shaheen, director...
ABHA: Saudi women spend more on cosmetics compared to women in the West, the Arab world and even in the Gulf, economic studies show.Recent statistics issued by the Saudi Customs suggest the amount of imported cosmetics in the past year exceeded SR2.3...
RIYADH: A study is under way to provide health insurance to Umrah pilgrims and domestic workers and certain articles of the health regulations needs to be amended, an official has said.According to local media, the statement was made by Mohammed bin...
JEDDAH: The government last year helped over 2,000 children overcome circumstances that forced them to beg or work illegally. The number of children who got help to overcome was 2,039 last year, of which the proportion of the Saudi children was 16 pe...
RIYADH: The number of visitors to the United Kingdom from Saudi Arabia has been steadily increasing from 89,000 in 2009 to 144,000 in 2014.This was revealed at a presentation made to mark the launch of “Visit Britain” program in Riyadh on Wednesday....
NAJRAN: Three members of the Saudi National Guard died in Rabuah, Najran, on Wednesday.National Guard spokesman Maj. Mohammed Omari identified them as Lt. Faisal bin Abdullah Al-Shehri, Lt. Faisal bin Talal Al-Toub and Lt. Saud bin Khaled Al-Rukhayye...

Stay Connected

Facebook