Kavita, 45, was 11-years-old when she first started accompanying her mother and grandmother on their visits to upper caste households to clean their toilets. Today, Kavita is officially defined as a "liberated" manual scavenger. This means she is not actively employed in manual scavenging. But life has not changed much. Instead of dry toilets, Kavita now cleans shit from roads with no assurance from the government of a better future.
Kavita is a sanitation worker from Nagpur. But for her as well as the thousands of women working in the sanitation sector of India, it is manual scavenging with a makeover.
Despite the Manual Scavenging Act 2013 that outlawed the practice, manual scavenging is a stinking reality of 21st century India. With over 26 lakh dry toilets across the country, as recorded by the 2011 Census. As per 2017 records of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are 13,384 manual scavengers in India. Non-profit organizations put the number even higher.
The burden of heredity
Kavita, like other "rehabilitated" or "liberated" manual scavengers, did try to get jobs other than sanitation work. Kavita applied for job positions at shops and receptions, she tried to work at factories, she tried to work as a domestic helper, she even tried to be daily wage labour. But everywhere she went, she was asked her caste. "We are Maithers. We only get to clean other people's waste. That's what society wants us to do and will force us to do," Kavita says.
Sunita Kolatkar, 51, always wanted to be in the saree trade. For about a decade, she has been trying to raise loans for her small business. But things got harder when her husband lost his mental balance after years of cleaning septic tanks without gear or mask. she is now the sole bread earner of her large family of eight and also the financier of her husband's treatment. Sunita blames two things for her hardships: her caste and her past.
(Sunita Kolatkar, 51, Nagpur)
After The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Act and Rule) in 2013, Sunita who had been cleaning out faeces from dry toilets and pit latrines from age 15, felt that life would now change. But like the hundreds of Maither women who inhabit the railway slums of Nagpur, "liberation" only meant further discrimination.
With no alternate sources of income available, Sunita and her peers in the slums of Nagpur work on contractual basis with municipal corporations as sweepers and cleaners, often cleaning scatological waste with their hands as they are provided with no gloves, masks or devices to help them along. All this for Rs 12,000 a month.
"We get no leaves, we get no pensions or insurance, we don't even get permanent jobs. They tell us we are now dignified but is it dignity to clean waste from public roads with my hands?" Sunita wonders.
So what do women like Sunita do if they are to completely quit manual scavenging? From the tales of women who have been "rehabilitated" from manual scavenging work in the slums of Nagpur, it becomes increasingly more evident that rehabilitation does not always mean improvement.
'Of what use is my education?'
When Preeti Hajare, 33, was at school, she won a poetry competition. Her teacher slapped her and made her clean toilets as a jealous classmates cheered and bullied. She studied at the same school where her parents cleaned toilets. Her teachers often coerced her to clean toilets as well.
22-year-old Ganga Khare is also a daughter of manual scavengers. She has seen her parents clean people's pit latrines and dry toilets with their hands and not even get water from the people whose shit they just cleaned. Both her parents as well as Ganga did not want to continue doing the same work as her parents.
She studied till class 10 and with the help of a local non-profit organisation called Jan Jagrut Samiti, pursued a vocational course in nursing. She even got a job, albeit low-paying. (Rs 2,500). Ganga says that she still faces discrimination at her workplace.
(Ganga Khare, 22, Nagpur)
"They ask me why I'm doing this, why I'm not cleaning toilets like my parents," Ganga breaks down as she recalls. "Of what use is my education if society only looks at me as the daughter of a manual scavenger?"
The problem, according to Prof Lakahan of National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, is "stigma". Dr Lakhan has been researching the psycho-social health of liberated and non-liberated women involved in manual scavenging in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and found that despite the ban on manual scavenging and consequent "rehabilitation" of those employed by the sector, the practice widely continues.
"Sometimes corporations outsource the work to private contractors. In other cases, manual scavenging is often the only source of income left to some," Dr Lakhan says.
Dr Lakhan studied two sets of women - the ones he operationally defined as "non-liberated" because, despite so-called liberation, they were still involved in sanitation work without proper equipment, meaning they were still shovelling garbage with their hands (such as the sanitation workers in Nagpur). For the second set, he chose a group of former manual scavengers in Raisen, MP, who had completely shifted from manual scavenging and were now involved in other jobs.
According to the research, the so-called "liberated" women in Raisen made nearly half the amount they had previously earned for manual scavenging work and were much more financially worse off than their operationally "non-liberated" counterparts in Nagpur slums.
The research notes that liberated women often did not find jobs other than ones involving hard manual labour or cleaning. Moreover, the work was uncertain. As opposed to toilets that always need cleaning, daily wage labour is much more fickle.
And on top of it all, there is discrimination. Liberated manual scavengers report that they are usually not invited to village functions, religious ceremonies or anniversary celebrations as no one wants to touch them. "Even if the women leave the work, society knows who they were," Dr Lakhan says.
Who is to blame?
Dr Lakhan believes that nearly 80 percent of manual scavenging work has reduced, thanks to the Swachh Bharat Mission's focus on giving every household a toilet.
However, he also feels that jobs related to manual scavenging such as cleaning of gutters, septic tanks in government schools and hospitals and private cleaning jobs have continued unabated. "I have myself observed that women in Nagpur get no gear when picking up every thing from dry and wet waste to human or dog excreta and vomit from streets while being on contract with the municipality," Dr Lakhan says.
It isn't just the work that manual scavengers do. Social stigma is also reinforced by the living conditions of such communities. "Castes that are relegated to manual scavenging are shunned not just socially but physically too. We are not allowed to stay in central areas of the city", says Pradeep Hajare, a community leader working for the emancipation of the women sanitation workers of Nagpur and founder of Jan Jagrut Samiti. He informs that most such settlements are located in dilapidated peripheries of the city such as railway lines and suffer extremely unsanitary conditions.
No toilets for toilet cleaners
Pradeep says that a couple of years ago, he made the entire community fill up forms and apply for houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. No one had yet heard from them. The former manual scavenger also stressed on the lack of schools for scheduled caste children who were seldom admitted to expensive upper-caste schools and private institutions. Vocational training was also something that most women manual scavengers that spoke to News18 sought, at least for their children.
"It is too late for us to study for many, including our children. Vocational courses can help us learn skills," Preeti Hajare says. Nevertheless, only 4,643 of the 13,384 manual scavengers recorded in 2017 have so far received vocational training.
But perhaps the most appalling part of the lives of women sanitation workers is the ironic lack of bathrooms for their own use. Despite bearing the centuries-old burden of cleaning people's toilets, women sanitation workers often do not find one for themselves when they need. "They don't let us use their bathrooms and not every slum, bus stop or playground we go to clean has one," Kavita says. Since she is a woman, she would never go on the road. "So we just hold it in and hope we don't get a urinary tract infection", Kavita jokes with a laugh as hollow as her hope in the system.