Manual scavenging needs an approach beyond laws

ARV_MANHOLES_2578fBy Shafique Alam

The abominable, the inhuman, the wart on the body and the blot on the face of “rising India” is how the practice of manual scavenging is described by political and social commentators as well as politicians of all hues and colors. Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had called it a ‘Caste Apartheid’, while for the current incumbent Narendra Modi, it is a ‘blot on the face of the country. Yet, these encouraging utterances by top decision makers in the country have all been proved empty promises.
To end this terrible practice and provide social and economic safeguard to the people involved in this, Parliament has enacted two legislations – one in 1993 and the other in 2013 – and constituted a commission, the Safai Karmchari Commission, in 1993. But it seems that all the legislation have gone in vein, because the practice is not only in vogue, but also thriving, causing deaths of those who goes down to clean septic tanks and sewer lines. As per a report, nearly one thousand manual scavengers are being killed every year in the sewer lines or septic tanks due to poisonous gases.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan – an organization which has been working for the welfare of manual scavengers since 1980s – had organized a Bheem Yatra, starting from 10 December 2015 (the International Human Rights Day) to 13 April 2016 (125th birth anniversary of Dr. BR Ambedkar) in Delhi. The objective of this Yatra was the same, as it was 115 years ago when Gandhiji, in the Congress session of 1901, had voiced his concerned on this abhorrent and inhuman practice and the social stigma attached to it. However, even in independent India, this voice took almost half a century to fall on the deaf ears of those in power, as first law in this regard was introduced only in 1993.

Law and their implementations

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was passed and enacted by the Parliament, rendering practice of manual scavenging and construction of dry toilets illegal. The quantum of punishment for the violators was one year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000. However, according to the National Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson, this law has never applied. According to him it was because of a lacuna in the legislation: in order to prevent possible misuse of this law, only District Magistrate had power to book the violators. As a result, between 1993 and 2002, not a single FIR was registered. However, it helped the people who were involved in advocacy programme. Prior to 1993 people from the community felt shy from coming out and demonstrate for their rights, but after the enactment of this law they not only came out to raise their voice, they started opting for other professions and alternative employments.

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There is no doubt that at the government level there was lack of will to push through and implement this law in its letter and spirit. Between 1993 and 2012, the deadline to get rid of this practice has been altered several times by the governments.
The intent with which Safai Karamchari Commission was constituted in 1993 has not been fulfilled. Conversely, it becomes counterproductive. If a non-governmental organization or individual from civil society would take up the issue to the government or the authorities, they immediately asked to contact the Commission and file their complaint over there. Indeed, the 1993 law and Safai Karamchari Commission failed miserably to achieve their goals. Under pressure from the civil society and the NGOs working in this field the government, in order to mend the lacunae in 1993 act, enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013. This act provides that the sewer lines and septic tanks cleaning too will come under the definition of manual scavenging. Moreover, the Act unequivocally prohibits any human being entering into a sewer for cleaning purposes, except in emergency condition and with proper equipment. The Act also provide for financial assistant to those involved in this practice.

Supreme Court’s decision

After having waited for ten long years to see the things improve, the Safai Karamchari Andolan in 2003 filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, complaining government apathy and unwillingness towards implementation of 1993 Act. Since 1993 until 2003, no case was registered against anyone under this act. During the hearing of the case in the Supreme Court the attitude of various state governments was that of complete denial. They testified to the Court, under oath, that the practice of manual scavenging had been eradicated completely from their states and not death had occurred in sewer or septic tank cleaning. The petitioners then took over the work that should have been taken up by the government and conducted a random survey of those manual scavengers who have died during their work and presented it as evidence to the Supreme Court. However, 12 years of long drawn fight, on 27 March 2014 the Supreme Court ruled on the petition, in which it ordered all states and union territories to fully implement the 2013 Act, to prevent deaths in sewers and septic tanks, to provide a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to the families of those killed during manual scavenging since 1993. Two years have passed since the pronouncement of the order, as of now no survey has been conducted from any government. Bezwada Wilson says that his organization has documented 1,327 deaths occurred during manual scavenging and given it to the government to compensate the affected families. He claimed that only three per cent of cases have been compensated as of now. The remaining deaths tangled in official definition deaths.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was passed and enacted by the Parliament, rendering practice of manual scavenging and construction of dry toilets illegal. The quantum of punishment for the violators was one year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000. However, according to the National Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson, this law has never applied. According to him it was because of a lacuna in the legislation: in order to prevent possible misuse of this law, only District Magistrate had power to book the violators. As a result, between 1993 and 2002, not a single FIR was registered. However, it helped the people who were involved in advocacy programme. Prior to 1993 people from the community felt shy from coming out and demonstrate for their rights, but after the enactment of this law they not only came out to raise their voice, they started opting for other professions and alternative employments.

Social Impact

Most of the people associated with the practice of manual scavenging belong to the Schedule Castes, who have for hundreds of years been victims of untouchability. However, the irony of manual scavengers is that owing to their work they become victim of worst kind of social exclusion and are ostracized even by scheduled castes. Ex-Chairman of the Law Commission Justice A.P. Shah says, “this community not only has to face the caste bias, but because of their work as scavengers they have to face exclusion from the other SC groups.” Not that they do not want to quit this job. Since they belong to a community that has been a victim of social exclusion, therefore it is very difficult for them to seek another job. Ten years ago Maya Gautam was working as a manual scavenger, but today after quitting that job she works for the welfare of the community. She says that after her marriage, poverty compelled her to take up the family occupation that she never liked. Of course manual scavenging is caste-related phenomenon, but there another facet of it. Bezwada Wilson says that somewhere in it involved the patriarchy, because 95 of scavenger are women.

What the figures say

As per 2011 social, economic and caste Census, a total of 1.8 lakh households are engaged in manual scavenging. With a number of 63 thousand manual scavengers, Maharashtra stands first, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka. Here too Bezwada Wilson accuses authorities of cooking the book, saying it is surprising to find highest number of manual scavengers in Maharashtra. According to him, at the time of census a rumor was taking the round that manual scavengers would get many benefits from the government. This led many unrelated people to register, themselves as manual scavenger. Wilson allegation of data manipulation vis-à-vis manual scavenger appears true, because those four manual scavengers who have recently been killed while cleaning septic tanks in Chennai hotel were not registered as manual scavengers. The Supreme Court in its 2014 ruling accepted that there were 96 lakh dry toilets in the country, which were cleaned by hands, but there is variance in the exact figure of manual scavengers. Now a pertinent question that must be asked as to in which social group do the dry toilets are found? This fact is well hidden in the census. According to Bezwada Wilson, there is no specific class, caste or and income group that indulged in this practice. For example upper caste Rajputs of Bundelkhand and Muslims of old Lucknow still use dry toilets.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India campaign) was launched on 2 October 2014, in the 4041 statutory towns of the country, but manual scavenging has not found mention in it. The focus of this campaign is only on toilet construction. If millions of toilets will be constructed and if no mechanical arrangements will made to cleaning septic tanks, who will clean it? Of course human hands! In other words those have been doing this continue to do so. Needless to say this inhuman practice will continue unabated. Consequently, deaths in septic tanks and sewer line will also continue. The open toilets of trains are another major source of human excreta that are discharged on railway tracks, which are cleaned by safai karamcharis manually. Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has proposed to install 17,000 bio toilets in train coaches. It was also stated that in the budget that by the year 2020-21, all coaches will be free from open toilets. Of course, at least until 2020-21 manual scavenging on railway tracks will continue. Indeed, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan cannot be successful as long as manual scavenging is not taken care of in it.
However, the Bheem Yatra is in its final leg, a busful of yatris spreading the message of hope, a hope to eradicate a repressive practice. The Yatris are carrying the Slogan “stop killing Us”. There is no doubt that in the 21st century when mankind has made a lot progress in every field of life. India too is talking about introducing bullet trains, constructing smart cities, looking skyward towards other planets, but there is a darker world which became invisible in the brightness of the talk of progress. In this dark world, in stark violation of human rights, a man carries excreta of other human being on his or her head. The sad part is that all express concern, but does nothing to eradicate the practice. The organizers of Bhim yatra says wherever their bus went the people Valmiki community welcomed them with lot of enthusiasm, but that enthusiasm was conspicuous by its absence. In a press conference regarding Bheem Yatra in Delhi Janata Dal-United MP K.C. Tyagi said, “Parliament has been stalled on many times on unnecessary issues let all the members of both the houses of Parliament to pledge to stall functioning of both the housed on the issue of this inhuman practice. K. C. Tyagi’s statement is important as it might create awareness in the general public regarding the plight of a section of society.

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