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Public interest fellow Bhattacharjee L’13 drafts groundbreaking report on “manual scavenging”

September 08, 2014

For almost a year, University of Pennsylvania Law Review Public Interest Fellow Shikha Bhattacharjee L’13 interviewed people in the Indian States of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh as part of an effort to end “manual scavenging” – the cleaning of human waste by communities considered low-caste. Her findings are detailed in a newly released report from Human Rights Watch, “Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India,” for which she served as primary researcher and writer.

Across India, members of low-caste communities working as “manual scavengers” collect human excrement on a daily basis, and carry it away in cane baskets for disposal. Women from this caste usually clean dry toilets in homes, while men do the more physically demanding cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The report documents the coercive nature of manual scavenging, and describes the barriers people face in leaving manual scavenging work, including threats of violence and eviction from local residents, but also harassment, threats, and unlawful withholding of wages by local officials.

Bhattacharjee received a University of Pennsylvania Law Review Public Interest Fellowship to support her research on the implementation of laws to end manual scavenging; partnering with Human Rights Watch as a Human Rights Watch Asia Fellow, she conducted 135 interviews in between October 2013 and July 2014, including people who do this caste-based work, people who have left that work, as well as activists, lawyers, and government officials engaged in the issue.

As a Fellow, Bhattacharjee worked with Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, the National Campaign for Dignity, a coalition of 30 grassroots organizations committed to ending manual scavenging, as well as other organizations.

“My fellowship from Penn Law gave me the support and flexibility to define a year-long program that allowed me to contribute to the existing momentum to end manual scavenging,” said Bhattacharjee. “Over the course of this year, I had the opportunity to learn to document human rights abuses, and to work closely with a grassroots campaign to end manual scavenging.”

“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” asserted Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”

Women who clean dry toilets in rural areas often are not paid cash wages, but instead as a customary practice receive leftover food, grain during harvest, old clothes during festival times, and access to community and private land for grazing livestock and collecting firewood – all at the discretion of the households they serve. In areas where “untouchability” practices are intact, food is dropped into their hands or thrown in front of them.

According to Bhattacharjee’s research, local authorities are frequently complicit in the discrimination against manual scavengers. She has documented cases in which government village councils and municipalities have engaged in caste-based recruitment to clean open defecation areas. Those who do this work also suffer discrimination in other facets of their lives, including access to education, to community water sources, and to government housing and employment benefits. She also found that the police and other authorities fail to act on complaints by manual scavengers who have been threatened with violence, eviction and other offenses.

“People work as manual scavengers because their caste is expected to fulfill this role, and are typically unable to get any other work,” said Ganguly. “This practice is considered one of the worst surviving symbols of untouchability because it reinforces the social stigma that these castes are untouchable and perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion.”

The rights abuses suffered by people who practice manual scavenging are mutually reinforcing. Repeatedly handling human excrement without protection can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning. These conditions are exacerbated by widespread malnutrition and inability to access health services.

There are currently no comprehensive government surveys that accurately account for the prevalence of manual scavenging in the country. Accepting the lack of proper surveys, in March 2014, the Supreme Court of India confirmed however that that it is “abundantly clear that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated.”

India’s Constitution bans caste-based discrimination known as untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging. In 2013, the Indian parliament enacted The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (the 2013 Act) outlawing all manual excrement cleaning. The 2013 Act also recognized a constitutional obligation to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by these communities by providing alternate livelihood and other assistance.

Notably, under the 2013 Act, rehabilitation provisions are left to be implemented under existing central and state government schemes – the same set of programs that have not thus far succeeded in ending manual scavenging.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that manual scavenging violates international human rights law, and the court called for effective remedy. The new Indian government, elected in May, has pledged to address the needs of India’s marginalized communities, but has yet to take any new measures to end manual scavenging.

For those who have left manual scavenging, even those who had the support of community-based civil society initiatives, they report significant barriers to accessing housing, employment, and support from existing government programs, according to Bhattacharjee’s interviews.

“Caste-based custom, backed by coercion, is still binding people to manual scavenging, and that demands government intervention,” Ganguly said. “India’s new government has the means and an obligation to bury this rights abusing practice forever.”