By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Delhi
Activists in India have begun a two-day conference in Delhi to discuss ways of ending the practice of collecting human waste by hand by 2010.
Manual scavenging is supposed to be banned by the government
They say that some 1.3 million people are employed to remove human waste from non-flush toilets, a practice, known as 'manual scavenging'.
The conference has coincided with a protest by the workers and aid agencies helping them near parliament in Delhi.
They want the implementation of a 1993 law that bans the practice.
Around 1.3 million people, mostly members of the predominantly low-caste Dalit community, are involved in clearing human waste in areas where there is no modern sewage system.
They are shunned by the rest of the society and are forced to work for low wages.
Millions of people in India have no access to proper toilets
Mostly women, they are paid around 10-20 rupees (25-50 cents) every month from every household. In addition they receive a piece of bread.
The protest in Delhi was staged by around 100 activists, human waste cleaners and NGOs representing them.
Under banners demanding "a dignified life according to the constitution", activists talked about the need for state governments to be more active in implementing the law.
Bezwada Wilson, head of the national campaign to end the practise of human scavenging by 2010, said that state governments had failed to take steps under the law to identify such people and help them get alternate jobs.
He said caste prejudice came in the way of millions of poor people finding different work.
Pinky, 18, used to clean human waste from the age of 11 years in the town of Sikar in the state of Rajasthan.
Social activists managed to extricate Pinky and her parents from working as human scavengers.
But she complained that there was nothing else for them to do.
"My mother is without work, my father works in a local hospital. We are five children and it is difficult to survive," she said.
The problem faced by activists involved in freeing people from the practice was highlighted by Sohanlal, an activist from Sikar.
"Around 30 women we identified have refused to stop cleaning human waste because they want assured jobs from us. But the government is not helping us. Proposals sent to the local administration have been ignored," he said.
Under the law state governments have to ensure the building of modern sewage systems, but most states have lagged behind.
NGOs allege that a Supreme Court order for them regularly to monitor the problem is not being followed.