Caste is a specifically Indian expression of institutionalised inequality and indignity. The meaning of caste to those who suffer it is power on one side and vulnerability on the other; privilege on one side and oppression on the other; honour and denigration; plenty and want; reward and deprivation. In short, it means, as Babasaheb Ambedkar said, graded inequality with elevation for some and degradation for others: not a division of labour, as sometimes misconstrued, but a division of labourers. Untouchability is part and parcel of the caste structure; it is an economically and socially exploitative system worse than slavery.
Basic human dignity
The abolition of untouchability – the defining marker of the denial of human dignity for Scheduled Castes – was therefore adopted as a key Constitutional provision for securing basic human dignity to Dalits. Article 17 of the Constitution declared its abolition and criminalised its practice in any form whatsoever. Following the stipulation in Article 17, in the year 1955, five years after the commencement of the Constitution, Parliament exercised this exclusive power regarding untouchability and passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act which came into force from 1 June 1955. The Untouchability (Offences) Act outlawed the enforcement of disabilities ‘on the ground of untouchability’ in regard to, inter alia, entrance and worship at temples, access to shops and restaurants, the practice of occupations and trades, use of water sources, places of public resort and accommodation, public conveyances, hospitals, educational institutions, construction and occupation of residential premises, holding of religious ceremonies and processions as well as use of jewellery. The imposition of disabilities was made a punishable crime.
The dehumanising practice of manual scavenging is closely interlinked with untouchability and atrocities. Manual scavenging refers to the practice of removing human excreta by people with their hands and carrying the load on their heads, hips or shoulders. With the help of, usually, a pair of tin scrappers and a wicket basket or bucket, the manual scavengers remove and carry human excreta from the latrines to the dumping sites. The carrying of human excreta on the head is the abiding image of a manual scavenger. This is an obnoxious and degrading occupation that the manual scavengers themselves despise but feel helpless and trapped in. It is well known that this work is a caste-based occupation, socially assigned and imposed upon the untouchable communities in the country. The continuance of manual scavenging – there are at least half a million of scavengers, almost all Dalits, in the country even now – constitutes a gross violation of human rights and the worth of the human person and flies in the face of the Constitutional guarantee assured, in its very Preamble, of a life with dignity for every individual in the country.
It was only four decades after the commencement of the Constitution that manual sca
venging was specifically prohibited under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act which was passed by Parliament in May 1993. But the legislation is yet to become one of countrywide applicability. Some of the states have not adopted the law on the ground that there were no manual scavengers in the state, despite evidence to the contrary. The continuance of the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging is yet another severe derogation of human dignity of Dalits and a blot on Indian society.
Slavery, converging with landlessness and caste was deep rooted in Indian society. It may now be a matter of history that even in a state like Kerala, Scheduled Caste agricultural workers were being sold almost as a commodity along with the land. It was as if, instead of land being owned by human beings, human beings were owned by the land. With the enactment of the Anti-Slavery Act in 1843 and Sections 370 and 371 of the Indian Penal Code 1860, slavery stood abolished and became punishable. While slavery in its acute form disappeared from most parts of India, hereditary servitude institutionalised as bondage continued to be the condition of large sections of agricultural labour.
Abject poverty often compels the agricultural labourers to resort to loans in kind or cash often for subsistence or meeting expenses of marriage, medical or customary needs, usually from a landlord. In turn, the labourer undertakes to work for the creditor to pay off the debt. Because of the low wage he/she receives and the fact that he/she has to work as captive labour and has no freedom to work with anyone other than the creditor, his/her chances of repaying the debt are remote or virtually non-existent. With usurious interest, it invariably leads to bondage for life and for even the succeeding next generation, thus becoming hereditary and permanent. There are also a large number of bonded labourers in brick kilns, stone quarries, limestone mines, match factories, carpet weaving, irrigation works and a variety of other occupations. Nearly 75 per cent of the bonded labourers belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Ordinance was promulgated on 25 October 1975 followed by the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 passed on 9 February 1976. The Preamble to the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act mentions that the Act is to provide for the abolition of bonded labour system with a view to preventing the economic and physical exploitation of the weaker sections of the people. The Act abolished the bonded labour system and legally freed every bonded labourer, discharging the bonded labourer from any obligation to render any bonded labour or to repay any bonded debt. The Act provided for punishment of imprisonment up to 3 years and fine up to Rs. 2000 for anyone who enforces bonded labour or advances bonded debt or extracts bonded labour under the bonded labour system. The scope of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act has been widened by the rulings of the Supreme Court in its well known judgements in the Asiad Workers case and the Bandhua Mukti Morcha case.