For over 24 years, Shankar Rathore returned home from work with a distinctive stench. He is one of the thousands of women and men in India called "safaai karmachaari" or "cleaners" whose livelihood depends on sweeping the streets, picking garbage and diving into sewers.
A new law recently passed in the Indian Parliament might get Rathore to leave his job on the grounds that manual scavenging is a violation of human rights. But his worries - like that of his colleagues across the country - are valid: what happens to him when scavenging is eradicated? Most of them have no knowledge of the recent law.
When the British began to build cities, Dalits (the "untouchables") from other parts of the country were invited to work as scavengers. They were lured with housing, salary and food. The job trickled down to the family upon the death or retirement of a worker, a practice continues to this day.
But the worst types of waste are the sanitary napkins and the diapers. Often these are not wrapped
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits the manual handling of human waste before its decomposition. The Act instructs every local authority, cantonment board and railway authority to survey insanitary latrines within its jurisdiction and identify manual scavengers. Owners are to be held responsible for the conversion of dry latrines - ones without a flush - into sanitary ones.
According to the Act, current workers would have to be assigned other work on the same payment, while they would be provided with a residential plot with financial assistance to build a house, livelihood skill training, and concessional loans for new enterprise. Penalties could go up to Rs 5 lakh ($8115.50). It also envisages curbing open defecation within three years.
However, this is not the first attempt to do away with the historical injustice of manual scavenging. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 was hardly implemented. The new Act includes unsanitary work done in septic tanks, sewage lines, and railways latrines. According to the 2011 census, there are 750,000 families that still work as manual scavengers. Many states openly deny the existence of manual scavengers.
The new Act still leaves many open-ended questions. When Bebitai Mohite, a garbage picker in a plush housing society in Pune, was interviewed by this correspondent in July 2012, she had explained how her hands would get injured from collecting waste that included broken pins and pieces of glass.
"But the worst types of waste are the sanitary napkins and the diapers. Often these are not wrapped," she had said.
"The first time that I went into a sewer, I could not eat for few days. My colleagues explained that this is my job and life, and that I had to deal with it," says 26-year-old Bipin Kamble, who has been working as cleaner on contract for the Thane Municipal Corporation since four years. "We bathe after we get out of the sewer. We bathe with Dettol when we get home. But my hands are always smelling and there is nothing I can do about it," he says. He earlier worked as a store manager but the contract ended abruptly. He looked for other jobs but only found the job of a sewage cleaner.
'People here defecate just anywhere'
Many states openly deny the existence of manual scavengers. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) employs about 30,000 cleaners, who are involved in various types of garbage removal. These workers face a prevalence of tuberculosis, causing a high than normal death rate.
People put all kinds of waste into manholes and that cannot be sucked out by machines. That's when the workers have no other option but to dive in to remove the debris
Every officer interviewed denied the existence of manual scavenging. "As long as humans exist, toilets will have to be cleaned. Even in the West, toilets are cleaned manually. But people obey rules there; people here urinate and defecate just anywhere," said Rajiv Jalota, one of the additional commissioners of MCGM.
Even if the Act is seen an empowering one, a deeper problem in India is the callousness with the disposal of garbage. "People put all kinds of waste into manholes and that cannot be sucked out by machines. That's when the workers have no other option but to dive in to remove the debris," says Jalota.
Ranade, on the other hand, blames it on the lack of adequate number of toilets which lead people to defecate in other locations. A 2010 UN report showed that half of India's residents are mobile subscribers, but only about one-third of its population have access to toilets.
Prakash Patil, deputy commissioner at MCGM, who organises the solid waste management department, adds that workers are provided with safety gear. "The MCGM annually spends crores of rupees on purchasing that gear, but the workers seem to have issues using them," he said.
Doubts loom about job security when the law gets enforced beginning this December. When asked about what he hopes for his future, Kamble said that he wanted his job to become permanent, even as he acknowledges its degrading nature.
Navnath Maharnawar, 60, the working president of Municipal Mazdoor (Workers') Union, believes the Act is insulting.
"Instead of appreciating their work and providing them with safety gear, this Act is making the workers feel insecure about their future. There are so many skilled people who are jobless. So how could one trust the government to give new employment to the cleaners?" he says.
However, some organisations seem bent on eradicating manual scavenging altogether.
"Some workers justify their alcoholism to this job. Often, the children are not encouraged to study since they know that a job as a cleaner awaits them in the near future," says Milind Ranade, who organised workers employed through the contract system under the banner of Kachra Vahtuk Sangharsh Samiti. The organisation managed to get the Bombay High Court in 1999 to order MCGM's solid waste management department to hire 782 contract workers as permanent employees.
Ingrained caste system
Jagdish Khairalia once took pride in his belief that his grandfather defied the work of his caste as a cleaner, and was instead in the military. Much later did Khairalia discover that the military hired his grandfather to be a scavenger. Today, Khairalia mobilises workers of the unorganised sector, and encouraged the contract workers of Thane Municipal Corporation to demand a hike in their wage, since they are paid much lower than the permanent workers.
Khairalia showed this correspondent a Marathi book, "Narak safaaichi Gosht" or "The Story of Hell Cleaning". It reveals the wages of workers Nashik municipality in 1864: a manual scavenger was paid the same wage as a supervisor; while those employed to carry the excreta and transport it to the dump yard were paid more than the supervisor. He offers a radical solution to doing away with manual scavenging: "If the wages of the worker are increased, chances are his children will get a better education, and they would not want to take up their parents' job."
Meanwhile, as much as Rathore worries about losing the job because of the Act, he also knows that this cannot be the future. "I saw excreta falling on my parents' face as they carried it in baskets above their head. I am not carrying excreta on my head, but I still have to dive into sewers. My married sons do not have jobs. Maybe this is our fate, but I hope my grandchildren would never have to touch someone else's tatti (excreta)," says Rathore.