Prospect of relief for dawn toilers
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
India's Supreme Court has told six provincial governments in India to end what it called the 'pernicious and obnoxious' practice of low-caste people removing human excrement from people's homes.
Although prohibited by law since 1993, an estimated 800,000 people are engaged in what is euphemistically called the removal of 'night soil'.
This happens at homes in towns where, instead of a flush toilet, people have a 'dry latrine' - basically a small outhouse with a hole in the ground at the bottom of which is placed a container.
Every day, before dawn, scavengers go to the outhouse and remove the excrement.
They place it in a large tin container which they carry on their heads as they go from house to house. When it is full, they throw it on to a place allotted by the municipal authorities.
'If manual scavenging is still being resorted to, then the government concerned should indicate what scheme it has formulated for eliminating it and for rehabilitating the persons concerned,' the court ruled, giving the governments six months to come up with a plan.
Some voluntary groups who work with scavengers say the real figure is much higher - around 1 million - and that they are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, and respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems.
One group that has been fighting for years to liberate scavengers from their degrading work, Sulabh International, welcomed the ruling but wondered if it would be as ineffective as the existing law.
'These rulings come and go but nothing much seems to change. The judges should decide how to penalise the governments where this still happens. That might concentrate their minds a bit more,' said Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh chairman.
Many government schemes devised to end this primitive practice over the past 10 years have failed, despite US$120 million being thrown at the problem.
The low castes who perform this work live in ghettoes on the fringes of towns. Regarded as 'unclean', they are banned from entering temples and members of the higher castes recoil at the idea of accepting a glass of water from their hands.