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Stuck In A Hole

By Ashok Bharti

11 February, 2008

The constitution of India, in its fundamental rights, guarantees the right to life with dignity. The Constitution holds that "no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law." But these promises fall flat if we look at the conditions of life and work of Dalit communities involved in sanitation work, sewer cleaning and tanning. Forced to work under the most hazardous conditions, they are not provided any tools, gadgets or implements as safeguards.

As per official estimates, there are 7,70,338 scavengers and their dependents in India. The government claims to have rehabilitated 4,27,870 of them under National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS). The government also claims that there are 3,42,468 manual scavengers yet to be rehabilitated.

In 1949, the Government of India wrote to all state governments to take steps to implement as many recommendations of Report of the Scavengers Living Conditions Enquiry Committee set up by the Backward Classes Board of Government of Bombay headed by BN Barve. Nothing happened. Therefore, in 1957, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) set up a committee with NR Malkani as chairman to prepare a scheme to put an end to the degrading practice of scavenging. The committee, which submitted its report in 1960, in its 223rd recommendation suggested, "It is essential that state governments and the ministries of the government at the Centre draw up a phased programme for implementing the various recommendations and suggestions in a systematic manner within the end of the Third Plan."

Nothing worked, and in 1965, the government appointed a new committee to examine the question of abolition of customary rights of the scavengers. In its report, the committee recommended the dismantling of the customary rights structure under which non-municipalised cleaning of private latrines was passed on from generation to generation of scavengers in the form of a hereditary right. The recommendations of the committee, circulated to the state governments, evoked no response.

In 1968-69, the National Commission on Labour recommended a comprehensive legislation for regulating the working, service and living conditions of scavengers. During the Gandhi Centenary Year (1969), a special programme for converting dry latrines to water-borne flush latrines was undertaken. A pilot project with the same objective was undertaken during the Fifth Five Year Plan. The conversion scheme failed and was deleted from the Sixth Five Year Plan.

In 1980, the MHA introduced a scheme for conversion of dry latrines into sanitary latrines and rehabilitation of liberated scavengers and their dependents in dignified occupations in selected towns. The scheme was dovetailed into the then existing Centrally Sponsored Scheme (Implementation of the Protection of Civil Rights Act) as one of the measures for the removal of untouchability. The thrust, however, was urban and the central grant was dependent on a matching grant being provided by the state governments. In 1985, the scheme was transferred from MHA to the Ministry of Welfare.

AFTER REVIEWING the working of the scheme in 1991, the Planning Commission decided to bifurcate it. The Ministries of Urban Development and Rural Development were made responsible for conversion of dry latrines and the Ministry of Welfare (renamed Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in May 1999) was held responsible for the rehabilitation of scavengers. In 1992, the Ministry of Welfare introduced NSLRS. The government also introduced legislation — the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 — adopted now by 16 states.

The result? The comments of Comptroller Auditor General in his Union Government (Civil) Performance Appraisals (3 of 2003) note, "The NSLRS has failed to achieve its objectives even after ten years of implementation involving investments of more than Rs 600 crore."

It is equally ironic to note that for the government, a "scavenger" means "one who is partially or wholly engaged in the obnoxious and inhuman occupation of manually removing night soil and filth." This definition excludes those who are forced to carry out sewer cleaning, tanning and flaying and work in equally hazardous conditions.

Bharti is convenor, National Conference of Dalit Organisations

[email protected]

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