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Toilet Tuesday

India's Quixotic Quest to End Human-Hauled Sewage

India's Quixotic Quest to End Human-Hauled Sewage
Flickr/Sustainable sanitation

For more than 750,000 Indian families, sewage is a way of life. They make their living scooping up and hauling out human waste from old-fashioned dry latrines not connected to any infrastructure. Known as manual scavengers, these people are doing a traditional job that dates back to the 19th century. Now the government finally wants the practice to stop, as The Hindu reports.

Legislation is moving forward that could make it illegal for anyone to employ people to perform the job of manual scavenging, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and nearly $9,000 in fines. Any dry toilet that requires manual emptying would have to be demolished within 9 months of the law passing. But it's not going to be as simple as passing a law.

In addition to the 750,000 families counted by the census, it's likely that there are many, many more unrecorded manual scavengers. Most of the old latrines requiring this service exist in rural parts of the country where sewage infrastructure is rare or nonexistent and residents have been slow to adopt newer toilet technologies that don't require manual daily removal. But the infrastructure challenges go beyond moving from latrines to flushable toilets, as the existence of any kind of toilet is extremely limited in many rural areas. Only 33 percent of rural dwellers in India have access to toilets, compared with 87 percent of city dwellers. Unless sewage infrastructure becomes a higher priority for state and local governments, these less expensive and less hygienic practices will continue.

The job of physically carrying baskets full of human waste is one of the least pleasant available, but it's still a job that provides for these 750,000 families. Members of lower castes have traditionally taken on this role, and though it's a meager income, it is fairly stable.

Another reason it will be difficult to end manual scavenging in India is that another law prohibiting it has already been on the books for nearly 20 years. Passed in 1993, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act set a deadline for ending manual scavenging by December 2007. That deadline was then pushed back to March 2009. And then to March 2010. The law has had little effect and no teeth. As this article from Firstpost notes, not a single person has been convicted of violating the law since it was enacted.

Though officials hope that this new attempt to put an end to manual scavenging goes forward, lawmakers have only a few days before their current legislative session ends on September 7.

Top image: A public latrine in India. Credit: Flickr user Sustainable sanitation

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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