Manual scavenging, removal of untreated human excreta from sewerage gutters, is unsafe, therefore banned in most parts of the world. Following several deaths because of this India had prohibited this practice, however no conviction has so far been made under this law. Pakistan is also grappling with sanitation crisis and depends on labourers for this. Karachi produces over 1,761 million litres of sewage a day. Most of manual scavenging is done by minorities in Pakistan.
Manual scavenging is not an attractive career choice but for some in Pakistan it is still the only option. “I remember my mother’s words, she said that we can only eat when we clean the waste of others,” said Akram Masih, who was 15 when his mother told him that he would spend his life cleaning blocked sewage lines across the city.
Masih is now 25 years-old but he remembers each day he spent cleaning blocked drain lines of Saddar town in the bustling port city of Karachi. In Pakistan, such jobs are reserved for Chuhras or the lowest ranking members of the minority Christian community. He lives in Essa Nagri, a predominant Christian neighborhood, with a family of six. He makes Rs.800 or roughly $6 per day. “Rainy days were always the worst I had to do extra work to make the rainwater follow,” Masih said.
Like Masih, so many others are forced to clean the human waste across Pakistan.
Saqib Masih, 27, is another manual scavenger who has worked in Karachi for more than a decade. “We often find it difficult to find any other job in the city,” he said. Manual scavenging involves not only cleaning manholes and blocked sewerage lines but also stepping into drains and septic tanks. All of this is a health hazard, according to medical experts.
Dr. Hassan Auj, a medical officer at University of Karachi said that scavengers are constantly exposed to germs. “Their (scavengers) workplace is unsafe and terrible it definitely has a negative impact on their health,” the medic added. “Most of the scavengers have no protection which makes their job more difficult,” Dr. Auj said.
Like India, manual scavenging in Pakistan is also restricted to particular castes — primarily Christians. Public advertisement clearly seeks members from the Christian community for such jobs.
Despite little hope of change, Jawaid Michael, a Christian social activist, encourages members of his community to send their children to school. Michael believes it is about time the government protect members of his community. “The government needs to get serious about enacting laws that ban manual scavenging and assist the affected caste communities.”
A news report quoting World Watch Monitor said that minority representation in sanitation work in Pakistan is above 80 percent. According to the report, 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christian.
About 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christian. And 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christian.
Iqbal Masih, who is responsible for cleaning the sewage lines of Federal B Area block 20 said that he and others have complained so many times about the unsafe sites where they are being sent to work. “We never receive safety training; neither we have safety equipment nor do we get any precautions,” he said. “The only response we get is ‘do your jobs or quit’,” he added.
A report by Minority Rights Commission published in 2012 said that at least 70 Christians have died in Pakistan since 1988 while cleaning sewerage pipelines.
A number of Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore, and Malaysia, have successfully tackled the problem of sewage management and technology is being used to do such jobs.
While Pakistan struggles to provide equality. People like Akram Masih continue to do their job in tough and inhumane conditions. Masih recalls he had no option but to be a manual scavenger. “There was poverty and I had to feed our family. So, there was no other option for me – I covered my nose and started doing it,” he said with a quiver in this voice.