New legislation in India to crack down on the practice of forcing mainly the poorest women to clear other people’s excreta will have little impact unless deeply entrenched sexism and caste bias are changed, activists said.
Manual scavenging, a euphemism for disposing of faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand, has long been an occupation thrust upon members of the Dalit group, traditionally the lowest ranked in India’s caste system.
At least 90 per cent of India’s estimated 1.3 million manual scavengers are women, according to campaign group Jan Sahas.
“It is not just a case of caste discrimination, but also gender discrimination, as women are forced to do this basest of jobs,” said Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas, which says it has liberated more than 21,000 Dalit women from the practice.
“It is not even a job, it’s slavery,” he told the Reuters. “The women do not have a choice, they are paid a pittance, and are threatened with violence if they quit. There’s a lot of pressure from the village, the community, and their own families.”
India, which banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, has passed several laws to end manual scavenging with government pledges to modernise sanitation and criminalise those who employ manual scavengers. Legislation passed in December further tightened penalties.
Yet Dalit communities continue to face threats of violence, eviction and withholding of wages if they try to give up the practice, human rights groups say.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a “CleanIndia Mission” to improve sanitation in the fast-growing economy and increase funding for public toilets to end open defecation.
The campaign has helped draw attention to the plight of manual scavengers and forced state governments to act, Shaikh said. The government offers 40,000 rupees (Bt21,000) to each rescued manual scavenger and training for alternate jobs.
Yet crimes against lower-caste Indians are rising. There were more than 47,000 such crimes in 2014, an increase of about a fifth from the previous year, according to official figures.
The Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network has called manual scavenging, a “caste-based and hereditary occupation form of slavery”.
Paid less than a minimum wage, manual scavengers are often forced to borrow money from their higher-caste employers, leading to debt bondage.
The government estimated in 2011 that more than 180,000rural households are engaged in manual scavenging. Western Maharashtra state, which topped the list, had set a deadline of the end of March to end the practice.
“We have provided incentives in rural areas to build toilets, and we have offered alternative employment to these people in some districts,” said US Lonare, a senior official in the state’s social justice department.
He did not say if the deadline will be met.
Jan Sahas’ Shaikh said the new legislation must be implemented in full.
“Even one woman forced to do this work is a shame,” he said.” It’s a crime.”