As the Kerala government is all set to launch a state-wide survey and health study of manual scavengers next week, the unorganised nature of the group and reluctance of people to reveal their job is posing a challenge for authorities.
Though there is no exact figure of people engaged in one or other form of manual scavenging in the state, their total number is believed to be in thousands, according to NGOs working in the area. Of them, a majority are "invisible" ones, as they are not ready to reveal their job due to the societal stigma attached to it, they said.
A large number of people, both natives and migrants, are engaged in sewage and septic tank cleaning and in the removal of human excreta on railway tracks, which all come under the definition of "manual scavenging" and banned by law, they said.
Suchitwa Mission, the state nodal agency for sanitation, entrusted with the task of study and survey, said the format of the study is all ready, and the mechanisation process will be carried out after that.
The state government has set aside ₹10 crore for total automation of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of the employees, its officials said.
"The government is of the view that such practices should not be continued in the state in any form. We plan to launch the survey in one week," Suchitwa Mission Director (Operations), C V Joy said.
Prior to the survey, the Mission carried out a primary inquiry in some pockets in the southern part of the state, inhabited by people who engaged in manual scavenging once.
"But they are not ready to reveal whether their present generation is continuing this job or not. Even those engaged in the profession are also reluctant to reveal it in public," he said. However, Joy expressed confidence that the comprehensive survey would trace in-depth details in this regard.
Besides the survey, a detailed study of the health conditions of manual scavengers would also be carried out simultaneously. The survey would be carried out by the resource persons of Suchitwa Mission. The support of volunteers of all-women network 'Kudumbashree' would be sought if necessary, Joy said.
The health study will be conducted with the support of state Department of Communicable Diseases. "Those engaged in manual scavenging are prone to various diseases especially dermal diseases," he said.
On the mechanisation part, he said the most advanced equipment available would be bought for sewage and drainage cleaning and garbage collection and transportation. "We are planning to spend the major portion of the budget for their rehabilitation. We don't think the machines will cost much," he said.
Sundar Raj, a member of Safai Karmachari Andolan, an outfit working for eradication of manual scavenging, said people are engaged in manual scavenging on their own and as contract labours in the state.
"It is true that conventional scavenging, in which people collect human excreta in drums and carry it to dumping sites on their heads, no longer exists in Kerala.But many other forms of scavenging, banned by law, are still prevalent in the state," he told PTI.
As per the Supreme Court verdict in this regard, cleaning of toilets, drainage and septic tanks and clearing of human excreta from railway tracks or any other open space would come under 'manual scavenging'.
"It is true that more than 10,000 people, including youngsters, are engaged in the job in the state. But no exact figures are available in this regard. Majority of them are not ready to reveal about their job," he said.
Youngsters fear that they may not get a good alliance if they are found to be engaged in this profession, he said. The workers are highly prone to various diseases, ranging from cancer and TB to skin diseases due to frequent contact with drainage waste and human excreta, the activist added.
Journalist-turned-filmmaker Vidhu Vincent said a large number of people were brought to Kerala from neighbouring Tamil Nadu to clean dry toilets during the 1920s.
"In the state, manual scavengers are directly entering septic tanks and drainage pits without any safety measures. They handle filthy waste and human excreta without masks or gloves," she said.
Vidhu's debut move "Manhole', based on the life of manual scavengers, recently garnered various accolades, including the best film and director titles in the last state Film Awards.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 defines the 'manual scavenger' as a person engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling in any manner, human excreta in a sanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit, or on a railway track or in such other spaces.