Social Dialogue Magazine
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Dalberg Water Week_Final - Indian Sanitation Workers Anahitaa Bakshi, Knowledge Manager (Global) WASH Practice Area, Dalberg Advisors, India, www.dalberg.com wikimedia
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Pamela Singla, Professor at Department of Social Work (DSW), University of Delhi

Social Inclusion

Social work practice deals with the oppressed and marginalized and has caught the attention of social workers. The write-up is a piece on an occupational group which has caught the attention of the masses in the country. Also enumerated is the strategy to address the problem and the rehabilitation of the persons involved in the work. It is necessary that social workers are sensitive to their narratives and experiences and collaborate with the other stakeholders and policy makers for appropriate interventionist strategies based on grassroot realities.

Yet another reporting on scavenger deaths while cleaning manholes and septic tanks. The Prime Minister’s speeches on Independence Days and 2nd October promising to eradicate scavenging by a more effective law/s for those engaged in scavenging is a step towards social inclusion of this occupational group. I am reminded of the 1960’s, during my visits to Punjab (state in India) where I was first introduced to scavenging and the scavenger. The structure of the mansion like houses was such that the stairs adjoining the houses led to the terrace where the toilets were located. The mornings buzzed with activity to which got added the voice of ‘Saddho’ (her name), who used to shout from the bottom of the stairs ‘Saddho aa gayee’ (Saddho is here) which was a signal for everyone to clear the stairs for her. She was a strong built, dark complexioned woman with heavy silver ornaments, her head covered and she held a big iron pan on her side. She would leave after some time, the pan now on her head as head load after which the routine resumed. Need to be mentioned that she was greeted by everyone who came in contact with her, as her presence was sort of a good omen. The ‘She’ or Saddho was a scavenger, the person engaged in the manual removal of night soil.

The Census Survey:

Two decades passed and Saddho had somewhere got buried at the sub conscious level of my mind, to resurface in 1992 while conducting the Census survey on ‘Identification of Manual Scavengers and their Dependents’ in the city of Delhi’ sponsored by the Delhi Scheduled Castes Financial and Development Corporation. The survey was conducted in response to the enactment of the ‘National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents’ in the Eighth Five Year Plan (1992-1997) followed by the ‘the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. 8500 persons were found working as manual scavengers during the 1992 survey. Fifteen years later in 2007, I conducted the Census survey once again for the Delhi Government and found a substantial decline in their numbers, 1085 this time, those who resided and worked in Delhi (the number excludes the 197 who resided in Loni, Uttar Pradesh but worked in Delhi). Briefly, the profession continues to be dominated by women (80%), most of who are married and have children. It is a part time job for them, done in the morning hours, involves lot of walking and the distance is generally covered by foot to save money. The earnings from the profession are low but the women see it as additional income to the family. The residence and workplace areas are primarily North East and East Delhi. A vital change over the period was the shift from carrying night soil as head load to drain cleaning.

It is important to mention that the identification of persons working as scavengers specifically requires a very thoughtful methodology because the aim of the survey is to end an obnoxious profession and to rehabilitate those working as scavengers. The 2007 survey had ten steps as part of the methodology, devised to ensure that no person working as scavenger is left unidentified. It culminated in giving an advertisement in four daily newspapers namely- Punjab Kesari, Milap, Dainik Hindustan and Quami Awaz, inviting the public to inform us about any person doing or employing manual scavengers. We received none. The survey produced crucial data which was supplemented with qualitative information collected through informal interactions and group meetings, for the purpose of devising an appropriate and effective interventionist strategy.

Beyond Statistics: Walk the Talk

Elaborating on this, during a ‘walk the talk’ kind of conversation with four women working as scavengers, I asked them if they would like to change their job. The reply was prompt ‘yes’. On further quizzing I asked, ‘what if the same job be converted into a government job’? The pause was visibly long and the reply was ‘yes’. They added that that would be dream come true and as who does not want a government job and they were not even equipped to do any other job as scavenging is the only work they know. The point is that while statistical analysis showed that majority want a change in job, qualitative data gave some more insight into reality because the yes was without information on the alternate occupations that would be offered. Among the lesser known disadvantages of the profession shared by them were-- salary is not received on one day as employers pay at their convenience, weekly off is not granted in majority of the cases and any attempt to seek permission for one day leave is met by strong resistance from their employer.; most of the women are not very keen on changing their job as they are comfortably settled with scavenging. They own their mohallas (colonies) and no other scavenger can replace them without their permission. Interestingly, the mohallas are even given as dowry in the marriage of their daughters. The scavengers aspire for a bright future for their children, away from the work of scavenging.

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The Ex-Scavengers:

As per the 1992-93 and the 2007 survey, while scavenging in the capital happens to be a female dominated profession, the sample (1050) of ex-scavengers i.e. who had left scavenging to take alternate jobs were mostly ‘men’. Is the Scheme of Self- Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, 2007 more kind to men or are the women scavengers taking a back seat and paving way for their men to enter better alternative professions? Or is it that those who benefitted under the Scheme did not belong to the targeted population. However, the respondents claimed to have worked as scavengers earlier.

The Ex-Scavengers:

As per the 1992-93 and the 2007 survey, while scavenging in the capital happens to be a female dominated profession, the sample (1050) of ex-scavengers i.e. who had left scavenging to take alternate jobs were mostly ‘men’. Is the Scheme of Self- Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, 2007 more kind to men or are the women scavengers taking a back seat and paving way for their men to enter better alternative professions? Or is it that those who benefitted under the Scheme did not belong to the targeted population. However, the respondents claimed to have worked as scavengers earlier.

It is not surprising that the ex-scavengers find themselves most comfortable with the broom and thus a large number of them have taken up tasks of cleaning and sweeping as alternative jobs. They have sought employment as sweepers in factories, sweeping and mopping in private houses, sweepers in the offices, schools, dispensaries of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), sweepers with Delhi Development Authority, Delhi Metro and other places. Some have entered as casual labourer and some have got job of peon or chowkidaar (gatekeeper) and half a dozen have taken to drum playing. Reasons shared by them for liking the new job included-- cleanliness, respect, regular salary, better health and a weekly holiday. A few expressed their wish to go back to scavenging as they were in no way financially better off. Any training being imparted under the mentioned Scheme of Self Employment was not in their knowledge which is serious matter as the Government has allocated a substantial amount under training and rehabilitation of scavengers.

Strategy for Rehabilitation:

On the basis of the above mentioned, a three pronged strategy is being proposed for eradicating scavenging and for rehabilitation:

To strengthen the aforesaid it is pertinent that ‘training’ which is the most vital and the weakest link till date in the earlier schemes be implemented with thorough understanding of the profile of the target group, meticulous planning and good intention so that we enter 2020 without the ‘blotch on the socialscape’.