India’s manual scavengers: ‘They drink because they can’t stand the smell’
Waist-deep in sewage, wearing no safety gear, heavily intoxicated to withstand the stench: these are India’s so-called “manual scavengers”, paid scant wages to carry out a job that is illegal and dangerous. Videos shared with the FRANCE 24 Observers team show how manual scavenging is still occurring in India, allowing municipalities to cut costs and clear sewage ahead of the monsoon season.
They use their hands and makeshift tools to clear garbage and sewage from the water lines. Removing human excrement from septic tanks and open sewers by hand, otherwise known as “manual scavenging”, still occurs on a regular basis despite being banned in India since 2013.
A number of manual scavengers were seen working in several locations in Mumbai on April 13, intoxicated and without safety equipment, as part of monsoon preparation work by the municipality.
‘All the sewers in the neighbourhood drain into it, from commercial and residential properties’
Our Observer Yashodhra Salve, an activist with Video Volunteers, a citizen journalism initiative, filmed labourers in Mumbai on April 13. Some of the labourers told Salve they were hired by a supervisor working for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Mumbai’s governing body.
On Thursday I went to drop my daughter off at school around noon. We were in between the Mumbai neighbourhoods of Chembur and Govandi when I saw a group of men in a big “nullah”. A “nullah” is an open gutter. All the sewers in the neighbourhood drain into it from commercial and residential properties: from hotels, companies, waste from kitchens, and human waste from toilets.
I saw nine to 10 men doing what’s called “manual scavenging”: picking up human excrement with their bare hands, with no protective clothing. It was very hot, they were in their underwear. They had protective gear with them – helmets, rubber gloves and rubber overshoes – but they were not using it. They told me the equipment provided by the BMC is not very strong, that the gloves are not thick enough to protect their hands from hazards like broken glass so they prefer not to wear them.
I filmed the men on my phone because I didn’t have my camera with me. It’s important to document this kind of abuse so you can prove it is happening.
Each year in preparation for India’s monsoon season, from June to September, the BMC carries out infrastructure projects in preparation for the rains. These include clearing sewers and drains to prevent flooding.
The state government of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located, has mechanised sewer suction pumps to clean its drains. In December 2022, the state ordered all local bodies to stop manual cleaning practices and opt for 100% mechanisation.
They told me they were being paid 400 rupees a day [4 euros]. While we were talking, a supervisor came over and said they were actually getting paid 600 rupees a day. But in total, they are supposed to be paid at least 731 rupees when working for the BMC. I find it shocking, because Mumbai is one of India’s biggest cities and the municipality has a lot of money.
A banned practice relegated to the lowest castes
According to the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, manual scavenging can only be practised in cases where mechanical cleaning is impossible – and precautionary measures must be applied.
Still, an estimated 58,000 people work in manual scavenging around India. The government reported 347 deaths due to cleaning hazardous sewers and septic tanks from 2017 to 2021, but activists say the figure is likely higher.
An investigation by Scroll.in revealed that Mumbai is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to manual scavenging, covering up the deaths of up to 19 workers in hazardous cleaning conditions in the past five years.
Manual scavengers have a high risk of death due to exposure to diseases as well as poisonous gases. In February 2023, two manual scavengers in Uttar Pradesh died after inhaling poisonous gas.
‘People from certain communities are forced to clean the toilets because higher-caste Indians think it is beneath them’
The job is usually relegated to people at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy known as Dalits. Many are forced to do the job out of desperation or social pressures engendering violence or exclusion.
The men were from a Dalit neighbourhood in Chembur called Limbonia Baug. They generally work as sanitation workers, though they can do other work if given the right opportunity.
Manual scavenging – “maila dhona” in Hindi – is a tradition that goes back centuries, to the time of the Maharajas. People from certain communities are forced to clean the toilets because higher-caste Indians think it is beneath them.
I could tell from the way they were talking that they had been drinking. They were slurring their words and could barely stand up. The workers show up at 6am and start work at 7am. There are stores open at that time to sell them locally made liquor. I believe they drink because they have to go down inside gutters with human waste. They drink because they can’t stand the smell.
Activists say that – despite legal bans – the reality on the ground has not changed. Traditional discrimination coupled with unemployment and lack of education and awareness of their rights draws many informal workers to manual scavenging.
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In India, up to 70% of toilets are not connected to a central sewer line, and therefore require manual septic tank cleaning.