When Sumitra Bai left her parent's home in Barotha village (Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh) and came to stay with her husband after marriage, she was full of dreams about her new life. But after a few days, she got a rude shock: she was asked to take up the family's job of removing night soil from twenty-five affluent houses every day.

Sumitra is one of the many Dalits in the country who are manual scavengers. Manual scavenging involves removing human and animal excreta using brooms, small tin plates, and baskets that are carried on the head. Refusal to perform such tasks leads to physical abuse and social boycott.

A 2002 report prepared by the International Dalit Solidarity Network - which includes the Human Rights Watch (United States), Navsarjan, (Ahmedabad, Gujarat), and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights - says that the government estimates that there are one million Dalit manual scavengers in India. Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Tuberculosis is rife among the community, according to the report.

Legally, cleaning of dry latrines and transporting of human excreta has been banned since 1993. Under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines (which are not connected to a drainage system) can result in imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. Offenders are also liable to prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Despite such laws, manual scavenging continues.

In the absence of an adequate economic alternative, it is often seen that manual scavengers are not able to quit their degrading work. In MP, on an average, each family makes about Rs 500 per month by manual scavenging. Besides, they get old clothes and sweets during the festival season, or during special occasions in the village.

The survey revealed that 95 per cent of the manual scavengers are women and girls. Traditionally, women have been forced to follow this undignified occupation.
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Social biases are a huge barrier to overcome. Initially, Sumitra refused to lift night soil on her head and tried hard to quit the job. She took a loan of Rs 20,000 with the help of social workers and set up a shop to sell cloth in the village. But the village community could not accept her new role and spread the rumour that she stocked cloth taken from the burial grounds. She sold nothing for three months and was forced to shut shop. After a year and a half of struggling, she accepted defeat and returned to manual scavenging.

There are many like Sumitra who, despite concerted efforts, cannot shake off the curse of being a lower caste and are forced into scavenging. International NGO ActionAid India's random survey in 2002 of six states - Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Utter Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar - claimed that manual scavengers were found in at least 30,000 dry toilets. The scavengers belong to the Valmiki community and its sub-sects - Badhai, Charmkar, Barguda and Bherva. The survey found that they face severe discrimination even from other Dalits. Teashop owners in some villages still keep separate (often broken) utensils to serve Valmikis.

In 450 villages of Dewas, Panna, Hoshangabad, Shajapur, Harda, Mandsour, Bhind and Rajgarh district (all in MP), barbers refuse to give a hair cut to the Valmikis. Many have to spend Rs 75-100 (three days wages) to get a hair cut in some town, said the survey.

Most importantly, the survey revealed that 95 per cent of the manual scavengers are women and girls. Traditionally, women have been forced to follow this undignified occupation.

State governments often deny the existence of manual scavengers. Activists claim that although the resources including government funds exist for rehabilitation of scavengers, what is lacking is the political will to do so. The Indian government has spent Rs 6 crores in "liberating" and "rehabilitating" the manual scavengers since the mid-1990s. According to a survey, almost 94 per cent of village latrines in MP are dry. The MP government announced in 2003 that it would connect all dry latrines to a drainage system. But no concrete step has been taken so far.

Even government offices and buildings run dry toilets. And despite an active people's movement against the practice, municipal offices recruit only Dalits to keep these lavatories clean.

Further, some of the initiatives taken up by the central government have misfired. For example, the welfare scheme offering educational scholarships (Rs 750 per child annually) to vulnerable families (those families involved in unclean occupations) has not been successful in MP. The scholarship stops the moment the family leaves manual scavenging - as they don't come in the vulnerable category.

Thus, when three women of village Bissani of Panna district decided to quit scavenging, their children lost their scholarships. One of the affected, Anita Valmik, laments that with the scholarship she was at least able to buy books and clothes for her children. Now she has no work, no money and fears that her children's future is dark.