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India's Scavengers Seek Recognition As Sanitation Workers

As India votes in national elections, manual scavengers are trying to overcome caste stigma and prejudice.

An Indian manual scavenger cleans a manhole in New Delhi in August 2018
An Indian manual scavenger cleans a manhole in New Delhi in August 2018
Shruti Jain

KARAULI — A few months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela, describing it as an "act of worship". While addressing a recent election rally in Rajasthan's Hindaun, though, he didn't utter a word about the plight of manual scavengers in the district. Instead, he spoke at length about how the country is safe under the current Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) regime.

This has come as a rude shock to manual scavengers who have been fighting a case for their recruitment as government sanitation workers for the past six years. Manual scavengers of the Harijan basti area in Rajasthan's Karauli were denied posts as sanitation workers in 2012 despite the Rajasthan municipality sanitation employee rules clearly stating that manual scavengers are to be prioritized.

When the 2012 order prioritizing them for the posts was announced, women like Rekha were convinced that their miseries would soon come to an end. As they were eligible for the posts, they didn't have the slightest inkling that they could be rejected – even after being shortlisted for interviews.

To fight for their right, six women manual scavengers – Rekha, Maya, Mamta, Suman, Meena and Mamkta Mehtar – filed a writ petition in the Rajasthan High Court in 2013, stating that the Karauli municipality adopted a "pick and choose" policy while recruiting sanitation workers.

Rekha, Maya, Mamta, Suman, Meena and Mamkta Mehtar, the women who filed a petition — Photo: Shruti Jain/The Wire

In their petition, the manual scavengers have alleged that several ineligible persons had been appointed whereas the petitioners, who were fully eligible and had fulfilled the requisite conditions, were not considered.

The petitioners submitted their applications along with all the required documents and fees within the prescribed time in the municipality office. Based on their eligibility, the authorities had issued call letters directing them to appear for an interview between June 10 and June 20, 2013.

"The interview went well and we were quite hopeful to get through, but our names didn't appear in the list of the selected candidates. We went straight to the authorities to check about it but they haven't responded," Rekha Devi, one of the petitioners, told The Wire.

As they wait for the court to rule on their petition, these women are still working as manual scavengers to earn a livelihood.

Dang Vikas Sansthan, a registered society that works for the rehabilitation of the community, identified 18 manual scavengers in Karauli as a part of its survey, which was duly verified by the concerned authority. The society has claimed that only two out of these 18 were appointed.

"The government had appointed us to conduct a survey and notify manual scavengers in the district. As part of their rehabilitation, we conducted their training and provided them monthly remuneration too. All this was under the government's supervision, but still 16 notified manual scavengers haven't been inducted as sanitation workers," Rajesh Sharma, associated with the Sansthan, told The Wire.

The total number of candidates selected has also been raised as an issue. The Karauli municipality recruited 53 candidates, while its advertisement in a local daily had notified only 32 posts for sanitation workers. The petitioners have claimed that no clarification on the advertisement or any official circular was issued to increase the post count from 32 to 53.

A First Information Report (FIR) was filed in 2013 against the then commissioner of the Karauli municipality, Rakesh Kumar Garg, under Sections 13(1)(d) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 120(b) (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code for accepting bribes from candidates.

Speaking to The Wire, commissioner at the Karauli municipality Deepak Chauhan said, "It's an old issue and I've been posted here very recently. As far as I know, the matter is pending in the high court of Rajasthan and we can now act only as per the court's orders."

There have been numerous instances in recent times where ‘upper"-caste people have applied for jobs as government sanitation workers. That was why the Rajasthan government had made it compulsory to prioritize manual scavengers in the recruitment, but authorities turned a blind eye to these guidelines.

To fight caste stigma and prejudices, manual scavengers in India have issued their own manifesto for the first time this election.

To fight caste stigma and prejudices, manual scavengers in India have issued their own manifesto for the first time this election. Their demands include rehabilitation, education, health, safety, pension and the right to live with dignity.

They have also demanded that all sanitation workers and their dependents be issued a Right to Life – 21 card that ensures free access to education, healthcare and dignified livelihoods. A pension of Rs 6,000 ($85) per month to all sanitation workers above 55 years of age has also been put forth as a demand.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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