The Invisibilized Youth from Manual Scavenging Communities

Dec 1, 2022

The Brunt of Caste Discrimination

‘Youth is the hope of our future.’ — a phrase so common we’ve accepted it as the norm. Rightly so, for the new generation brings with it innovation, social reform, and even paradigmatic change in some cases. However, we often overlook the other side of this statement — for our youth to be able to use their potential optimally, they require a conducive environment during their growing years. While our society has always made education and healthcare of children its priority, there still remains a large group of young people who have been structurally disadvantaged by the same society. These are the youth belonging to communities who have been forced into a life of shame because of their caste. The lower castes in our society have been, and still are, expected to do all work considered ‘menial’ by the majority, despite how essential that work is for the basic welfare of the public. A particularly downtrodden and invisibilized section of our society is the manual scavenging and waste-picking community. Children of manual scavengers spend their entire childhoods accepting their family’s conditions — handling human excreta, cleaning sewers without any protective gear — as normal.

Have we ever included these young lives in the narrative of ‘the youth is our future’?

The Plight of Manual Scavengers

The reality is that this section of our youth is denied the opportunity of even having a future. Official records say there are 53,236 individuals still involved in the practice of manual scavenging. However, this data is deemed to be a huge underestimation, for there are expected to be more than half a million people across the nation still working as scavengers. That’s more than half a million lives grossly exploited for society’s gain. As per reports, 90% of scavengers are women while a survey based in Andhra Pradesh noted that 81% are between the age group 18–45 years. These numbers are attributed to a variety of factors, some of which are (but not limited to) -

  1. The wage paid for a labour-intensive job done without any safety measures can be as low as Rs. 10 for women and Rs. 300 for men. With measly wages like these, it is almost impossible to provide proper health care and education to children. Surviving each day is a battle — a battle that each member of the family must fight.
  2. As casteist and classist norms in our society make it difficult for young individuals from manual scavenging communities to obtain an education or to join the mainstream working class, they have to resort to scavenging jobs. These jobs at least give them a daily income which they can survive on.
  3. Some children who do manage to attend school have to lead a hectic life of scavenging for waste in the morning and studying in a school in the evening; a school that barely guarantees quality education or even a safe environment.
  4. To cope with their nauseating work environment several scavengers consume alcohol. This leads to an increased tendency to fall towards alcohol addiction. Apart from this, many of them are forced towards the dark paths of trafficking and prostitution, thus making rehabilitation of such youth even more complicated.

Governmental Efforts — Or Lack Thereof

The legal framework made in 1993 and the subsequently amended Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (Manual Scavengers Act), 2013 has not provided any respite to the millions of helpless youth in our nation. At the national level, the Swachh Bharat Mission has failed to comprehensively address this issue. Budget allocation for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis has reduced from 47 crores in 2014–15 to Rs 5.92 crores in 2018–19. Parallelly, the state-level response has been quite staggered and does not provide a positive picture either.

In Kerala, children of the Chakkiliyan community are not recognized as members of Schedule Caste and have hence been robbed of the opportunity to obtain admission through reservation in the state. The state government works towards dealing with their issues through the department of Scheduled Caste Development but parents involved in scavenging are provided a relief amount of Rs. 3000 only per child. Similarly, the demands for educational facilities for the children of the Sheikh community in Jammu and Kashmir have always been ignored by the local authorities as the state’s politics has forced the issues faced by lower castes to be a low priority. While in Haryana, the government has assured manual scavengers insurance of Rs. 10 Lakh. It has also suggested the workers elect a contractor who would ensure that all workers can avail state-sanctioned benefits. However, the problem here lies in the fact that the government has officially denied the prevalence of this practice in the state.

Shaping a Better Future

In a situation like this, demanding political representation for scavenging communities seems a far fetched concept especially when the government’s official records don’t even acknowledge the presence of several such individuals all across India. Issues of the lower caste simply don’t align with the mainstream. Despite the utter lack of interest in rehabilitating waste-workers in our nation, several organizations like Safai Karamchari Andolan, Hasiru Dala, and Jan Sahas India have been able to liberate the youth from the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitate certain communities across the nation. Several women in Madhya Pradesh have been able to lease government land and practice fish farming, with collaborative support from Jan Sahas and UNDP. In Bangalore, Hasiru Dala’s efforts have helped streamline thousands of waste-pickers into the sanitation department of the city by giving them the opportunity to work as self-reliant entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, such phenomenal work, albeit life-changing for many, remains limited due to lack of support from the general public.

It is indeed a privilege for the mainstream population to so very easily ignore the issues of manual scavengers when they are the ones who have benefited from their work for centuries.

This practice is often remarked as a blot on Indian development but this approach yet again invisibilizes the struggle that each individual involved in this practice has to live through. It gives precedence to eradicating this practice rather than rehabilitating the lives of the practitioners, hence failing to bring systemic change. Undeniably, liberation is a mammoth task, but the first step towards change seems quite simple, building a true allyship between young leaders and lower caste youth. Maybe then the ‘hope for our future’ will be an inclusive community of youth which is driven by the values of brotherhood and solidarity.

The objective of a ‘Think Article’ is to bring knowledge about policies in the sphere, in context to the youth of India and, if possible, influencing the policy process. The article has no motivation to pass any political judgments.