Sanitation: A Stinking Legacy of Social Stigma and Suffocation

Imagine you are in your car with your windows down while it crosses a garbage dump or an open sewage drain. What would you do immediately? You will shut the car windows, perhaps make an annoyed face and cover your nose. But have you ever wondered about those who have to bear this smell - that too a hundred times more magnificent - those who are involved in manually cleaning it, daily?

This is one question that needs to be seriously pondered upon!

Every one of us has heard of the term - SANITATION. While most of us care about the sanitation and hygiene of ourselves and our homes, there are many who are deprived of sanitation in our society. It is so sad that on one hand, India has made significant progress in human and technological development wherein we are planning bullet trains, but on the other hand, it stands amongst the top in the list of countries with poor sanitation. The top 10% of the country enjoy clean and hygienic surroundings while there exists a community that makes its living by carrying human excreta and has no proper access to sanitation. Around 300 million Indians still practise open defecation. On top of it, every other day, one gets to hear of the death of sanitation workers working in extremely unhygienic conditions. 

Sanitation and cleaning are often linked to social stigma. It is considered as the work of the poor, more specifically to those belonging to lower castes in India. The caste system has impacted society to an extent that even basic sanitation and hygiene is considered to be a privilege. Our society not only differentiates spaces as pure and impure but also its people. Scooping out the filth and bearing the stench of sewage is considered as the legacy of the poor and lower castes; this social status has been pre-determined for ages and has remained that way. The most esteemed 'google' has  defined this work of manual scavenging as an inhuman practice and I won't even question the web! The sad fact is that in our country, not every person belonging to a lower caste is a manual scavenger but almost every sanitation worker does belong to a lower caste.

From drains and sewers to septic tanks and railway tracks, millions of people are engaged in cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta in return for pittances of this humiliating job. People still believe - "Hamari jaati ke logo ka yahi kaam hota hai" and "hamare bache bhi yahi karenge." ("People of our caste have only this work to do" and "Our children will also do this"). It is astonishing to see how this age-old legacy created by our society has made them believe it to be their fate and destiny. 

Why does this problem still exist? And are there not enough strict rules to deal with it?

'No manual scavenging deaths, 941 died while cleaning sewers'

The above statement was recently released by the government. It clearly points out a major problem. Even though there have been laws made to protect the dignity and rights of sanitation workers, either there is some flawed enactment within them or they are badly implemented. Although it has been claimed that there have been no deaths due to manual scavenging, does that mean it is justified to have deaths while cleaning sewers, when in reality there's hardly any difference between the two. 

Schemes and policies are being implemented in our country giving people the access to toilets but they haven't yet provided an appropriate and hygienic method for disposal. The manual work of carrying out human excreta is not only caste dependent, but also gender influenced. The majority of women from lower communities get paid as low as ₹10 to ₹50 per month for carrying human excreta. This reflects upon the huge irony which exists within the country. There have been schemes and policies aiming to protect the dignity of women by providing them with private sanitation spaces, while on the other hand, in reality their oppression has been further perpetuated through the humiliation of women dealing with human excreta. 

The actions and promises of the concerned authorities only come up at the time of elections with several inherent flaws. The multilevel-structural domination has left the sanitation workers with no option but to continue working. Moreover, government surveys are only confined to statutory towns, highlighting the fact that the concern is seen as an urban problem. This survey also misses out over a million estimated uncounted deaths of sanitation workers in the last 50 years who belonged to the private sector thereby not getting included. The pandemic also witnessed a surge in deaths of sanitation workers who handled the dead bodies in semi-urban and rural areas, and on the banks of the river Ganga. 

The problem has prevailed for a long time and still continues to exist across regions. Despite the laws being in place, implementation and execution has been slow and redundant leading to numerous deaths over the years. The problem doesn’t limit itself to the present day workers but also to their families and generations that will follow. Attributing the job to certain vulnerable sections denies the people of their basic rights as individuals. This also sets up a ripple effect on the speed of development of a nation. Most of the workers suffer from severe illnesses and live shorter lives, thereby producing and earning less, and are unable to afford education and stable futures for their children. 

The need of the hour is to remove this blot on the idioms of justice. The social and gender issues related to sanitation have to be eradicated at the grassroots level. Assuring sustainable freedom not only requires awareness but also accessibility. Accessibility to alternate livelihood options with a right to a dignified life needs to be ensured. The problem of poor sanitation and such related issues won't be eradicated with the construction of toilets unless new and innovative ways to empty the pits without human intervention are explored. Moreover, a lot more difference can be made once individuals start thinking about the questions raised at the beginning of this article. The answer to 'how' will come up once it is truly understood by everyone!


Shruti Indoria

I'm an undergraduate student at Shri Ram College of Commerce, pursuing Economics honours. An avid reader and a music lover, exploring various fields to self-discover and understand this world better.

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