By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Aug 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of thousands of impoverished "low caste" Indians are being forced to clean human excreta from dry toilets and open drains, despite a ban on the discriminatory and undignified practice, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Monday.
India has since Independence in 1947 enacted laws aimed at ending the practice of manual scavenging, which include commitments to modernise sanitation to end the manual disposal of faeces as well as outlawing employing anyone to do so.
But centuries-old feudal, caste-based customs have allowed manual scavenging to persist, with communities facing barriers such as threats of violence, eviction and the withholding of wages if they try to leave the practice, said a report by HRW.
"Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity," said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW's South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Caste-based discrimination known as "untouchability" was banned in 1955 in India. In September 2013, parliament went one step further and outlawed employing anyone to clean human excrement.
The "Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India" report said not only do people continue to collect and dispose of faeces, but they are often not paid cash wages - instead given leftover food, grain, old clothes, or access to land for their livestock and firewood.
Local authorities are often complicit, said the report, citing examples of government village councils and municipalities such as Bharatpur, Dholpur, Karoli in Rajasthan and Sikandra, Mathura, Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh which still recruit low caste people to clean open defecation sites.
Many people remain unaware of the law and their right to refuse to clean human waste, it said. Those who do refuse, face social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the support of local officials.
The report, which surveyed more than 100 current and former manual scavengers in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, said most of those employed were "Dalits" - a community which traditionally occupies the lowest place in India's caste system.
In March 2014, India's Supreme Court confirmed however that it is "abundantly clear that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated."
Although there are no official figures on the number of people who are forced into the practice, the International Dalit Solidarity Network estimates there are 1.3 million manual scavengers in India, most of whom are women.
Women usually clean dry toilets, men and women clean excrement from open defecation sites, gutters, and drains, and men are called upon to do the more physically demanding work of cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
Human rights groups say not only is this a matter of dignity, but also that the repeated handling of human excrement without protection is a serious health hazard. It can cause constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
The HRW report called on authorities to enforce laws outlawing caste-based discrimination and banning manual scavenging and put in place specific rehabilitation measures to support those who lose employment.
Groups representing the Dalit community welcomed the report, saying that it showed the lack of political will in combating manual scavenging.
"This report serves as an illustration of one of the worst manifestations of caste-based discrimination in South Asia, inflicting human rights violations in all spheres of life including work, health, education and safety," said Rikke Nöhrlind, Executive Director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
"The report also shows how the Indian government and officials must step up to the plate to end this practice as far too little has been done."