The grim reality of Manual Scavenging in India
Manual scavenging continues to plague us, decade after decade; death after death. We as a country have constantly challenged ourselves to find solutions to every problem, be it miniscule or scaling the lengths and breadths of mankind. Through our innovative methods and constantly boggling minds, we have dotted ourselves on the ‘World Achievers’ map in diverse fora. However, this basic element of human societies; sanitation, has received dismal attention.
Isn’t it ironical that, from being the world’s most ancient civilisation, the first well-planned drainage system, we have today come to the point of irreversible damage? To blame our ancestor architects would be superfluous, for they led the path even when scientific discovery didn’t favour conditions to explore space. How then did we end being a generation of lackadaisical dullards, when it comes to ground level management of our existence as a society?
Manual Scavenging is perhaps this century’s worst Human Rights breach. Despite concerted efforts of scientifically and environmentally conscious people batting for human rights, change has been reluctant to manifest. Bezwada Wilson, the founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan has been campaigning for an end to Manual Scavenging and his efforts were even recognised at the international dais when he became the recipient of the Ramon Magasasay award in 2016. With this achievement, the issue gained considerable spotlight back home, yet the snail’s pace for change remains.
As recently as last month, three labourers died while manually cleaning a sewage tank in Loni, Ghaziabad due to suffocation induced by poisonous gases. While we are a developing country, struggling with rising petrol prices and obsessing over Dollar exchange rate, we can certainly pay more attention to lives lost to the inefficiency in the sanitation system. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swach Bharat Abhiyan has taken cognizance of this crucial issue, we as citizens, entrepreneurs, and socially responsible people need to think more and do more.
We require capital investment for appropriate gear such as goggles, gumboots, waterproof gloves, and respiratory protection. Along with building toilets in rural and urban areas, we need the Swachta Mission to tackle the issue of faecal sludge management first and foremost. For a rain-fed, water-scarce country like ours, it becomes all the more relevant. However certain daunting questions remain, where do we get funds for the same? What technology is the most appropriate for a country like ours? What are some of the eco-friendly and budget-friendly ways we can adopt? Most importantly how do we reduce the waste generation, how do we become responsible stakeholders in this fight?
The government of India has often outsourced activities that it was unable to reach perfection in. Although met with resistance, cleaning of monuments has been privatised and the step is welcome if the results are in favour. A similar model in sewage treatment could perhaps clear the murk of our sanitation system. Faecal sludge management has been introduced in railways, with a concept of Biodigester toilets, designed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). In these toilets, the anaerobic disintegration of human waste through bacteria releases Methane gas which can be further re-used. This being cost-effective solution is quite appropriate and brings about a transformation in the level playing field.
Apart from the technological innovation in the drainage system and capital investment required for sanitation gear, we also need to scrutinise the aim of reaching ‘Zero Waste’. Every couple of years, Sweden makes it to the headlines for being the most advanced country when it comes to recycling and waste management. It goes extra miles, by importing waste from neighbouring countries to keep its state of art recycling plants functioning. The energy released from burning waste is then utilised in keeping its national heating network running. Such a renewable waste management approach is inspirational!
In European countries, there is a ban on landfills; hence they send the garbage to Sweden instead of paying fines. Though we have an upper limit on landfills, it almost looks like the 4 landfills of Delhi are competing with each other as to who reaches the sky first. Not only has it caused deaths due to collapsing piles of garbage but the toxic waste has been percolating into the groundwater over the years. What could be more disastrous than living in a polluted environment having nothing else to consume, but polluted food and water. The cycle is self-defeating.
Hydraulic engineering needs a revamp for most cities drainage systems, the sooner it’s done the better. Banned in 1993, manual scavenging continues to be practiced in 2018. It is about time, that manual scavenging is taken off our dictionaries, off the face of this planet. Each and every life matters and should be treated with dignity. After all, it couldn’t be more appropriate, to call cleanliness next to godliness, and losing lives in the pursuit is nothing short of a debacle.