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Four years after Swachh: cleaning excreta for roti in Rajasthan

Munni cleans a dry latrine in Behnara village in Rajasthan.   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The narrow village street is lined with gutters, dotted with excreta flushed out from latrines inside upper caste homes. Santa Devi pulls a corner of her sari over her mouth and begins to push the morning quota of waste into her metal basin using only a makeshift shovel and broom. Once she has thrown the waste onto a nearby dump, she can come back and collect the roti or two, which is her only “payment” for the job.

This is how Santa Devi has started every morning of her life for the last 60 years. In Behnara village in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district, this is “sanitation” by the barter system.

Little has changed today, despite the fact that her village, and all of rural Rajasthan were declared open defecation-free – which includes the removal of all dry latrines – by the Centre’s flagship Swachh Bharat mission over a year ago. Manual scavenging is a crime under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

No money for this

“My sister Munni, her husband Rambhu and I – we do the maila dhoni (scavenging) work every day. It takes us about five to six hours, and we come back stinking,” says the 65-year-old grandmother. “For other cleaning work, we get paid a little money, but for removing night-soil, only one roti.”

There are five families in the basti occupied by the Mehtar community, which has traditionally been forced to clean the excreta of the upper castes. In this village of about 250 households, split between Jats and Jatavs, Santa Devi and her family say they remove faeces directly from dry latrines in 10 Jat homes, and clean excreta from the gutters of several upper caste streets. Santa and Munni’s sons do this work occasionally, but also earn a living from daily labour, including the cleaning of regular toilets and septic tanks, collecting solid waste, and removing bodies.

“No one will let us do any other work. No one will buy anything from us. They say we are dirty,” says Munni’s son Mukesh. “We are not even allowed to do puja in the village temple.”

Munni hopes her grandchildren can break the cycle through education. “I want to be a policeman to fight the dushman [enemy],” says Sangam, a class four student.

Sangam’s teacher makes the boys from the Mehtar community sit separately at the back of the classroom. “The other boys won’t play with us, or eat with us. If we accidentally touch them, they shout and call us names,” he says.

His grandfather cleans the school’s toilets on most days. On days he doesn’t, Sangam and his brother Sagar are expected to do the job.

“We think Swachh Bharat has actually broken down these caste barriers,” said Sanitation Secretary Parameswaran Iyer, speaking to The Hindu a week before Swachh Bharat Abhiyan enters its final year. He confirmed that if a village or State is declared ODF, it means that all households have access to sanitary toilets and all dry latrines have been removed and converted into sanitary toilets. He termed any instances of manual scavengers still cleaning dry latrines as an “aberration.”

Another branch of the government is in the process of collecting data on how widespread the problem is. So far, an inter-ministerial task force led by the Social Justice Ministry has registered over 50,000 manual scavengers in at least 160 districts, according to the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA), an NGO, which has partnered with the Ministry to conduct the survey.

The survey’s verification process is still ongoing, but RGA workers say that local officials are under pressure to deny the presence of manual scavengers, especially if the district has been declared ODF.

In April 2018, ten members of Behnara’s Mehtar basti, including Santa Devi and her sons, went to a registration camp organised by the survey team. Their names are duly recorded in the survey list, but in the verification column alongside, district officials have entered the same uniform phrase: “Maila dhone ka karya nahi karte (do not do scavenging work).”

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 5:42:21 AM |

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