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Toilets Should Not Be Emptied by Humans Say Indian Sanitation Laws

Manual scavenging is illegal in India. Yet, the practice continues to exist in pockets. Image courtesy UNICEF India

Manual scavenging is illegal in India but the practice continues to exist. This lady in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh is carrying human waste for disposal. Image courtesy UNICEF India

Manual scavenging, or the manual removal of human waste from non-flush toilets, continues to exist in pockets of India despite the Indian government's stringent laws against it [pdf]. A team of bloggers, including a member of Global Voices, visited a few villages in the Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh, India and learned more about this continuing illegal and dehumanizing practice.

The Indian government in partnership with UNICEF India has been actively pushing an ambitious, community-led total sanitation program – the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA), which aims to end open defecation by 2017. An earlier Global Voices post reported how UNICEF India's #poo2loo campaign has been using innovative methods to engage the urban populace and create awareness about the issue of open defecation.

However, apart from influencing cultural norms to end open defecation and building of toilet infrastructure across the country, the NBA program also deals with hygienic methods of solid and liquid waste disposal. And it is in this context that the blogger team learned how traditional “dry toilets” were unhygienic. Plus, given that these areas lacked proper sewage system for waste disposal, these toilets encouraged the illegal waste disposal method – manual scavenging.

A traditional dry toilet in a village of Uttar Pradesh, India, that requires manual scavenging to clean. Image by author

A dry toilet in a village of Uttar Pradesh, India, that needs manual scavengers to clean. Image by Aparna Ray.

The district panchayat officer of Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh India explained why, according to him, dry toilets (toilets without a flush or wash-away system) were worse than open defecation. He pointed out that open defecation in villages generally took place in open fields and wooded areas away from human habitation, but in traditional dry toilets the waste lay open within the confines of the home, spreading diseases faster within the community (as the waste attracts flies, which then sit on foodstuffs, etc.).

In fact, this was one of the reasons that many families preferred not to have a toilet within the house. Plus, these kinds of dry toilets also require manual scavengers for waste disposal, a job that is “without dignity and illegal”.

Mayank Jain from Youth Ki Awaaz was one of the bloggers on the field visit. He wrote about his experiences:

dry toilet is probably the gravest thing I have encountered in my life. Those who feel shy or don’t want to go out choose this means where they leave their fecal waste in one corner of the house and in the morning, a human scavenger comes to clean it and carries the whole waste on their head to dump it anywhere away from their home. This is done in return for a sum of just 30 rupees for 6 months! This is an inhuman crime being carried out all over the villages and it is a massive source of diseases and health issues. People don’t realize how unhygienic it is to live with their own waste in the house and those who carry on their heads find themselves perpetually ill with diarrhea or poisoning and they still choose to do it for that extra money

Mayank further commented:

The story gets worse once you talk to them about their children and you discover this profession gives birth to huge discrimination and people don’t dare touch them or talk to them nicely because of what they do in the morning. Story of human scavengers brings to light the vicious cycle of poverty and misery but the web is intermingled with shades of caste-ism, religious sentiments, traditions and cultural hierarchies that have grown to this level now.

It is a crime as per Indian law and the women who do it ran away when we tried to talk to them thinking they will be caught or punished and I could only wonder where this country has reached so far.

Three scavenger ladies

Three scavenger women in a village of Uttar Pradesh, India, huddled together, a little away from the rest of the villagers. Image by Aparna Ray

Bloggers Ajay Kapoor from Halabol and Sonal Kapoor from the NGO Protsahan have also blogged and tweeted about what they learned from these manual scavenging women, whom they met on the field trip.

Ajay blogged:

Scavengers from a village. No dignity, no respect and worst of all they get pennies for this humiliating work and some stale food.

And Sonal (@ArtForCause) tweeted:

The women complained that they were ill much of the time but when it was pointed out that it was because of the work they did, they said that they could see no other viable and respectable alternative open to them.

The Indian government, along with organizations such as Sulabh International which are working in the field of sanitation are pushing for societal change a) by trying to get people to convert their traditional dry toilets to a more hygienic option that does away with the need for daily scavenging and b) trying to create alternative livelihoods for these scavengers.

Conversion of traditional dry toilets

The government along with its sanitation partners is pushing for conversion of these unhygienic dry toilets into flush toilets. However, keeping in mind the lack of proper sewerage systems as well as the impracticality of advocating expensive flush systems, especially in poorer or rural areas, they are opting for technologies such as the self-composting, twin-pit pour flush system.

A dry toilet being converted into a twin pit pour flush system. Images courtesy UNICEF India

A dry toilet being converted into a twin-pit pour flush system. Images courtesy UNICEF India

This toilet technology involves building a toilet which is connected to two pits, any one of which is used at a time. Water-flushed waste collects in a pit and when it is filled, the other one is used. The waste gets converted into compost, which can then be used as manure.

Other innovative, alternative sanitation systems are also being explored across India, for example,this ecosan squat toilet system, supported by UNICEF.

A more contemporary format of a waterless flush system was also recently exhibited in India.

Rehabilitating manual scavengers

As more toilets get converted and as opportunities are created for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers by providing them alternative livelihoods, there is cause for hope, though a lot still remains to be done in this area. Be it through the government sponsored “100 days guaranteed work” scheme or self-employment schemes or even NGO-led training and employment generating initiatives, we hope that the manual scavenging community will get reinstated in the mainstream society and be able to live with dignity and dream of a better future for themselves as well as their children.

In this YouTube video, Sulabh International's Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak talks about his organization's initiatives in this direction, saying that the resulting glimmer of change is a “candle in the darkness, a beginning of the beginning”.

In the next post in the series, we will look at how some brave “toilet warriors” are working within their communities to bring about change in attitudes to scavenging, sanitation and hygiene.

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