While the 2017 documentary presented the stark reality of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, the subsequent discussion, with the lawyer and human rights activist Albertina Almeida, and the architect Tallulah D’Silva, provided insight on way-forward action in Goa.
Have you ever wondered what happens after you flush your toilet? In urban India, we rely on the government to contain, manage and, if we are overly optimistic, treat our sewerage. But we (should) know better: we depend on, and exploit by complicity, a section of society to literally clean up our mess. The documentary ‘Kakkoos’, directed by activist Divya Bharathi, unforgivingly holds up a mirror to our actions.
The 2013 ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation’ Act has defined ‘manual scavenger’ as:
“a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government of a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed…”
Manual scavenging has been officially banned since 1993, with the ban being reinforced with the 2013 Act. But the 109-minute documentary, which focusses on manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu, sheds light on a grim reality by detailing the plight of manual scavengers and their families in a casteist society.
Still from the film: Improvement of the economic status of manual scavengers is prevented by a deep-rooted casteist prejudice. (credits: Divya Bharathi)
According to the ENVIS Centre on Hygiene, Sanitation, Sewage Treatment Systems and Technology, the Central Government counts 53,000 manual scavengers in India. The film argues otherwise: due to open defecation, even street garbage collectors face the humiliating task of collecting excreta almost every day. Since they are provided gloves, they are not labelled ‘manual scavengers’ and thus cannot be protected by the law.
Daily-wage labourers employed for cleaning railway tracks, septic tanks, manholes and small-town open sewers also face the same prejudice. The blatant exploitation of labourers is bigger than a casteist problem; it is a socio-economic issue where the poor, usually the women and the aged of marginalised sections of society, are forced into manual scavenging labour.
Still from the film: Though they clean the sewers of the city, manual scavengers are forced to live in slums without access to clean sanitation. (credits: Divya Bharathi)
The film inspired viewers to begin an animated discussion on important takeaways and the steps going forward. Led by Albertina Almeida and Tallulah D’Silva, various ideas were discussed for individuals and the community to take up.
Tallulah, an architect who is passionate about sustainable solutions, noted the significance of zero-waste dry toilets and suggested a lifestyle change with their use. She urged the audience to rethink the default flushing system, which mixes excreta with water thus creating the need for septic tanks, which inherently depend on manual scavenging. An important takeaway was the changes that the architecture community can catalyse by practice, such as a DIY dry toilet kit, which uses sand and sunlight to break down excreta. CCF will collaborate with Tallulah to organise a workshop on making dry toilets in the foreseeable future.
Albertina, a lawyer and human rights activist, emphasised the need for a statewide manual scavenger survey with self-registration booths in Goa to understand the magnitude of the issue. As a society, to bring the issue to the forefront of political concern—which forces politicians to bank on the interests of the marginalised society—is the way forward.
As individuals, what steps should we take to address and solve the problem? Comment below to let us know!
Those interested in the film may view it here on YouTube.
Read more about manual scavenging here:
- Manifesto by Safai Karmachari Andolan https://thelogicalindian.com/awareness/safai-karmachari-manifesto/
- Urban shit: where does it all go? https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/waste/urban-shit-53422
- Manual scavenging: A stinking legacy of suffocation and stigma https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/waste/manual-scavenging-a-stinking-legacy-of-suffocation-and-stigma-61586
- Why technology alone won’t solve India’s manual scavenging problem https://scroll.in/article/905669/why-technology-alone-wont-solve-indias-manual-scavenging-problem