BBC NEWS, AUGUST 25 --- Rights group Human Rights Watch has called on the Indian government to end "manual scavenging" - the practice of cleaning human waste by low-caste communities - in a new report.
The practice is banned by law in India, but it is rampant and activists say nearly 10 million are involved in this demeaning work which opens them to prejudice and abuse.
The report calls on the government "to ensure that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice".
Millions of people from low-caste communities remove human excrement from toilets which do not have the modern flush system and carry it away in cane baskets for disposal. Women from these castes - like Gangashree of Kasela village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh - usually clean dry toilets in homes, while men do the more physically demanding cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Gangashree carries the faeces in her basket to the outskirts of the village for disposal.
The centuries-old practice of manual scavenging is common in Kasela village in Uttar Pradesh, and the scavengers are still considered "untouchables". Here, a woman enters a home in the village through a rear entrance to remove excrement from non-flush toilets.
Manisha who lives in Uttar Pradesh's Mainpuri district cleans toilets in 20 homes every day. "I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement that has collected in the toilet, I collect the excrement in a basket, and then I take it and throw it away. This work is so awful I don't feel like eating," she says.
Munnidevi of the state's Etah district says she does not get any money for her work. "Sometimes they give two rotis (home-made bread), sometimes just one. One house did not give me anything for two or three days. So I stopped going there. If they give me nothing, why should I go? Then they came to threaten me: 'if you do not come, we will not let you on our land. Where will you get food for your animals?' We own four buffaloes. I went back to clean. I had to."
"The panchayat (village council) hires people to work as water suppliers, messengers, clerks, garbage collectors, and this work that I do - cleaning toilets," says Anil of Dhule district in the western state of Maharashtra. "If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work. You are not told this directly, but it is what you are hired to do and what is expected, even from the villagers. If there is excrement to clean, they will come and call us to do it."
"A village council brought our family here [from our native village in Maharashtra] to clean the dry toilets, water toilets, and open defecation. I collect all the excrement and throw it elsewhere. We actually want to go back home. We don't like it here," says Rajubai. "Because of this work, my health has declined. I eat very little food. It is very dirty work. But people are saying, the council will not allow us to leave and that is why they are not giving us the full payment."
A campaign - Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity) - launched by non-governmental organisation Jan Sahas helped liberate 11,000 manual scavengers in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Sevanti, of Dewas district, says: "They told me that I could leave and this work was against the law. Before that, we were told we had to do it. There was no one who told us we didn't have to do it."
Sahina of Madhya Pradesh's Ujjain district says: "I was made to sit separately at school while eating. Finally one day I got too frustrated by this. I threw my food down. Then I lost marks for speaking out against the way I was treated. I said to my teacher, 'If you mistreat me, and then fail me for responding, I won't come.'" It did not get better for Sahina and she soon dropped out.
Ashif Shaikh, founder and convener of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan says: "The manual carrying of human faeces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits [formerly untouchables], and it is central to the violation of their human rights."
Senajbi, a former manual scavenger, was able to get out in 2008 with help from Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. "In 2010, I was elected to a seat reserved for women, representing my ward in the village. I have had proper drains and roads constructed," she says.