There are laws against hiring people to do this horrible job, but they’re not enforced.
However, because these policies are not properly implemented, people remain unaware of their right to refuse this role, and those who do refuse may face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the complicity of local government officials.
Manual scavengers are usually from caste groups customarily relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and confined to livelihood tasks viewed as deplorable or deemed too menial by higher caste groups. Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination. Women usually clean dry toilets, men and women clean excrement from open defecation sites, gutters, and drains, and men are called upon to do the more physically demanding work of cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
It’s a good catch-22, isn’t it. They have to pick up the shit because they’re low people because they pick up the shit. Well that’s a maze there’s no way out of.
Ashif Shaikh, founder and convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign against manual scavenging, explained the systematic discrimination that emerges from this practice:
The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.
In Kasela village in Uttar Pradesh state’s Etah district, women from 12 families manually clean toilets with the full knowledge of village authorities. After spending the morning manually removing excrement from the toilets, the women return to the houses they cleaned to collect leftover food as payment. They are given grain donations at the harvest and old clothes at festival times, but receive no cash wages. Munnidevi told Human Rights Watch she stopped going to homes where she was not given any food, but says she returned to work after her employers warned that she would not be able to enter community land to collect firewood or graze her livestock. “I have to go. If I miss a single day, I am threatened,” she said.
They’re not even paid. They’re forced to do it by economic threats and they’re not paid. Like post-Civil War Mississippi, it’s worse than slavery. With slavery there’s an incentive to keep the slave alive and even healthy.
Sevanti Fatrod, from Bhonrasa, in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, says that she, her mother-in-law, and her two sisters-in-laws cleaned toilets in 100 houses each day—allowing them to collect leftover food from the houses they cleaned:
I did not know that I would have to clean toilets. In Nepanagar, where I am from, my family did not do this work. My father told me that my husband’s family had a large jagir, with work that spanned 100 families—but he did not tell me what work this was. I learned my work when I came to Bhonrasa . . . A jagir, means the area that you own. I was called a maitarani [scavenging queen]—for what? My work was to clean people’s feces— for only one or two rupees a month. We were told we had to do it. There was no one to tell us we didn’t have to.
While a jagir is considered a family asset, for the young women made to clean excrement immediately after their marriage, the jagir can be a traumatic inheritance. Sona, from Bharatpur city in Rajasthan, described her first day to Human Rights Watch:
The first day when I was cleaning the latrines and the drain, my foot slipped and my leg sank in the excrement up to my calf. I screamed and ran away. Then I came home and cried and cried. My husband went with me the next day and made me do it. I knew there was only this work for me.
For people who practice manual scavenging, untouchability and social exclusion are inextricably linked. Manjula Pradeep, executive director of Navsarjan, a Gujarat based nongovernmental organization that has worked for decades around this issue explains:
Manual scavenging is itself a form of caste-based violence and needs to be understood that way. It is degrading, it is imposed upon very vulnerable people, and in order to leave manual scavenging, they have to make themselves even more vulnerable— they risk backlash, they don’t know how they will live.
The horror of it is hard to encompass.