Low-caste Indians still forced to clean human waste: rights group

Low-caste workers often find it difficult to obtain any other form of work, with some toilet cleaners facing threats and harassment if they try to quit, according to Human Rights Watch.

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MUMBAI // Low-caste Indians are still routinely forced into manually removing human excrement from toilets despite a highly publicised law introduced last year to end the “discriminatory practice”, a rights group said yesterday.

Across the country, “manual scavengers” at the bottom of India’s entrenched caste hierarchy still perform the unsanitary work on a daily basis, Human Rights Watch said in a report after interviewing more than 100 people involved in the labour.

Low-caste workers often find it difficult to obtain any other form of work, with some toilet cleaners facing threats and harassment from local officials and residents if they try to quit, HRW said.

Women working as scavengers clean out primitive non-flush toilets by hand and with basic tools, collecting the faecal matter in bamboo baskets and buckets and taking it away in handcarts to dump.

In rural areas they are often given leftover food, old clothes and access to land instead of wages – all at the discretion of households they serve.

“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director.

“The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”

Indian lawmakers passed a long-promised bill last year to ban manual scavenging, with provisions to give the workers and their families alternative employment and assistance.

The bill was the latest attempt to stamp out the age-old practice, with previous laws against it introduced in 1955 and 1993.

Caste-based discrimination, by which those on the bottom rung are known as “untouchables”, is also banned by the constitution.

Both male and female scavengers are called on to clean excrement from open defecation sites, gutters and drains, HRW said, while men usually do the more physically demanding job of cleaning septic tanks and sewers.

“If I go to a hotel to find work, they ask my caste. Once I tell them I am Valmiki [a low sub-caste], they will only give me work cleaning the toilets,” said Bablu, a teenager from Bharatpur city in Rajasthan state.

“I want to do something else, I know this is discrimination, but what can I do?”

The rights group said the government needs to work with local communities to create a comprehensive programme to implement the 2013 act, ensuring financial help, housing and other livelihood support.

“Caste-based custom, backed by coercion, is still binding people to manual scavenging, and that demands government intervention,” Ms Ganguly said.

* Agence France-Presse