Manual Scavenging: An Extreme Violation of Human Rights

Poverty is disturbingly widespread – this is an unquestionable fact, a truth that we all acknowledge in the back of our minds as we indulge in our daily luxuries. Though mankind has been able to reach the moon, build self-driving cars, and achieve other extraordinary feats, the plight faced by billions across the planet has yet to be eradicated. Humanitarian organizations have done much to aid victims of poverty through the donation of food, shelter and medical services, but the number of individuals who have received enough aid to be completely lifted out of their situations is minuscule. Moreover, the number of people whose plights have drawn the international attention required to amass large aid efforts constitutes a fraction of all the people who need them. There exist individuals whose issues have not been brought to light; they are bound by the chains of destitution, being stripped of their dignity, self-worth and health on a daily basis. There exist individuals who are viewed as subhuman by their own governments, forced into labor so unimaginably degrading that they themselves believe they are undeserving of liberation. They are the manual scavengers of India.

Manual scavenging is a practice almost exclusive to India, and is the act of manually cleaning human waste out of pits and tanks – a soul-draining occupation reserved for Dalits, or untouchables. Dalits are members of India’s lowest caste. The caste system is widely outdated, and though its influence over Indian society has declined with the procession of time, it is the root cause of the dehumanization and mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of innocent humans. A staggering proportion of India’s population uses dry latrines instead of toilets with sewage pipes, which are often pits in the ground that can only be cleaned manually. The burden of emptying the latrines of virtually every Indian household is thus cast upon the lowest members of society, those who are literally perceived as untouchable by Indian citizens. They often work from dusk through to dawn scooping feces out of holes, loading it into baskets on their heads, and dumping it into ditches. None are given gloves, masks, or sanitation equipment, and as a result are stricken by disease and deformation. The pay for the job is abysmal, barely affording them enough meals to fuel their hard labor – let alone allow money for a quality education for their children or other basic necessities.

Inhumanity aside, Dalits cannot simply walk away from this occupation. Their low societal status prevents them from being able to find any other work, as citizens view them as destined to perform manual scavenging alone. They are literally forced to choose between scavenging for meager pay and starving to death due to no income. Additionally, Indians view Dalits as “tainted” individuals; many untouchables have endured a lifetime of manual scavenging, cleaning toilets for as long as four decades, which brands each of them with an invisible mark of filth and contamination. The fact that so many of them bear the permanent stench of their occupation contributes to their dehumanization, feeding the cycle of Dalit mistreatment. This vicious cycle, fueled by the toxic mob mentality of the majority of India’s population, only drives India further from the truth the longer it goes on: that Dalits are as human as everyone else. Even Dalits themselves believe they are worth less than others; many begin scavenging during childhood, being taught that they were born to do the task. This cycle is virtually unbreakable in its present state – after all, if both Indian citizens and Dalits themselves are too blinded by outdated social classification systems to recognize the glaring violation of human rights that is manual scavenging, what can be done to eradicate it?

The Indian government is another obstacle to the liberation of Dalits. Instead of taking action against scavenging, high-level government officials try to conceal the issue altogether by falsely stating that the practice barely exists anymore. Their false reports, along with the Indian public’s apathy, blind the rest of the world from the issue. Additionally, the Indian government has taken no initiatives towards removing dry latrines and installing sewage systems in India’s poorer districts. The existence of dry latrines is the sole reason manual scavenging exists – by doing nothing to replace them, the government forces Dalits into filling the roles of scavengers. Because the government refuses to publicly acknowledge the issue at all, they provide zero assistance to the workers, giving them no protective gloves or cleaning supplies that would at least enable them to perform their labor with dignity.

It is this combination of root causes – governmental apathy, lack of infrastructural development, and the Indian public’s dehumanization of Dalits – that feeds the blatant violation of human rights faced by millions of people in India. Until these issues are eradicated, Dalit children will continue to grow up believing they are worth less than everyone else simply because an arbitrary system of social categorization dictates every aspect of their lives, from birth to death. Though “decasticizing” the Indian mind will be no easy task, it is the only way for Dalits to be truly liberated. The first step towards doing so is raising awareness and destroying the apathy that is directed towards the matter; the clouds that have been obscuring this widespread issue must be parted, and international attention must be drawn to the invisible hell that millions of our fellow humans have endured for centuries. India-based organizations such as Safai Karmachari Andolan have already begun to raise awareness in India, but this is nowhere near enough action – a violation of human rights this blatant must be brought to the attention of people all across the globe.

Recognition of this problem is the first step towards solving it; after all, a problem has to be acknowledged before it can truly be addressed. By doing so, we’ll be one step closer to providing one of the world’s most alienated groups of people with what they deserve most: safety, dignity, self-worth, and freedom.

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