Last weekend, Manjunath, 33, a manual scavenger from Davanagere in central Karnataka, found himself among engineers and enthusiasts looking for solutions to the unhygienic conditions sanitary workers face. It was a hackathon at Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science, where, based on the experiences Manjunath and his co-workers recounted, the ideas ranged from safety gear to sensors for toxic fumes. Manjunath cleans pit latrines and drains in his shorts and a loincloth. “We shouldn’t be doing this, but who will feed us then?” he asks. “We have been doing this all our lives.”
Manjunath reckons there are about 50 manual scavenging workers in Davanagere. Usually, he works in a team of six or seven who share the wages—Rs 700-1,000, depending on the size of the toilet pit. Each job takes a few hours in unbearable stench. “We drink so we cannot smell anything,” he says. On an average, they clean two pits a day. At the end of the workday, which sometimes stretches till midnight, he would have spent about Rs 200 on brandy, often leaving only Rs 150-200 to take back home.
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New localities have sewage pipelines, but sewer-cleaning machines too have limitations. “Who will take the silt out?” he asks. In the villages, where he sometimes works, the team typically cleans up a pit, fills the nightsoil in a drum and takes it by tractor to the farms. “Rich people call us to clean up when there is something they won’t touch. In this work, there will be disease and health problems, and we can’t do anything about it,” says Manjunath, adding that he knows there’s enough money with the government for their rehabilitation, “but we get no benefits”. His hopes are on getting some aid in order to make a fresh start in another line of work. “We’ll do something else...become a vegetable vendor, or start a kirana shop. We could do some business…anything to leave this job,” he says.
N. Rangaswami, another sanitary worker from Davanagere, explains why a way out has been difficult. “People doing this job have the identity stuck to them. Customers come looking for us,” he says.