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Eliminating Manual Scavenging Needs Honest Introspection

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

06 November, 2012

Manual scavenging is a crime against humanity and yet the nation has failed to resolve it so far. It look that it does not attract us anymore and except for lip services we have left it to be resolved by the victims themselves. It is time for India to stand up together and resolve to eliminate this practice. Mere laws will not work as it needs greater social awakening and a movement against untouchability and caste system.

The government of India is planning to introduce a new bill related to elimination of manual scavenging and their rehabilitation in the Parliament. The earlier law Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (prohibition) Act, 1993 has proved to be inefficient and worked only to victimize the victims of this humiliating practice. Rather than reducing the practice of manual scavenging and punishing those who are still using the same practice to employ manual scavengers it humiliated them and forced them to hide facts about their compelling circumstances. Hence the need for a new law was felt by activists and political leaders too that if we were to eliminate this heinous crime against humanity, the government must come out with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for those engaged in it and rather than humiliating them, it need to look into the matter with greater concern and broader idea of elimination of this practice.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2012 is a clear departure from the past act as here the definition is broader and inclusive. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has been in the forefront of a discussion on the issue with civil society organizations to eliminate this practice. Unfortunately, the government of India itself does not have a clear figure about the exact number of people engaged in this practice. The government of India promised to the nation that the manual scavenging would be eliminated and every year new deadlines were set up but the scourge of manual scavenging never ended. Initially, the government at the center and at the state never ever admitted that there is manual scavenging prevalent in their states. Instead, they would always come out with data of ‘rehabilitation’ and the ‘great’ work done by them. Off late, the government came to the conclusion that the number was around 7 lakhs but now it has admitted that the total number of people engaged in manual scavenging is about 1.3 millions. But this number is totally fictitious and hence the government has decided to go for a census of the manual scavengers in the country but when will they be able to get the exact figure is still unknown.

There are broadly two approaches which have been witnessed in the fight against manual scavenging. The law makers do not address the societal violence and would make us believe that once they have provided money in the name of rehabilitation the discrimination would go. Hence, they provided ‘economic empowerment’ schemes for those who had left manual scavenging and this include a grant of Rs 50,000 to Rs 50,0000 loan for self-employment. Now the question is that if a person particularly a woman who has always carried this task over the years, what kind of business would she do if just given money. If he or she start a hotel or a dhaba, would any one drink tea or eat food there? If she makes a pickle or papad for sale, would any one buy it? How do we expect such things will happen people. Actually, these grants only help the middlemen and those who know it and they grab it and blame the community for failure.

We have demanded in the past that there is a serious crisis in our governance as those who join it do not really believe in the secular belief of the constitution and carry their caste prejudices. And that is the biggest hurdle in the governance system. It is not the issue of mere economic help when the root cause is the divine sanctity given in our religion. So, the issue has to be tackled not at the law making level but at the community level and without understanding those ‘tiny’ dynamics of our society, it is very difficult.

One of the difficulties emerged in identifying the manual scavengers and defining it. But for our sake here in this article, we feel that the most urgent need is related to those directly engaged in the cleaning of the toilet and carrying the night soil. And this is predominantly a work of women these days. The reason is that the men want to work with municipalities which are considered to be safer, pay better remunerati0n and are solid government jobs. So, attempts have been made to get into it even if on the ad-hoc basis. That has forced many young to opt for that. Unfortunately and shamefully, the municipalities in India, though provided the biggest employment to sanitation workers are the biggest violators of labour laws. Most of the new people who are employed by the municipalities are either on daily wager basis or under contractors. The daily wagers have no social security and their salary get deducted if they are absent or sick. No medical benefit for them. Many of them have worked in the municipalities for even 15-20 years without getting confirmed. Their hope is that one day they get confirmed and will live a better life. Now, most of the Nagar Palikas have had a backlog of 7-8 months salary to these wage workers. They never get salary every month. Some of them have not get for even over years. This has resulted in forcing their female wards into manual scavenging. Despite all efforts, economy impacts every one of us.

Much noise has been made about ‘upper caste’ or other backward castes applying for the job of sweepers. But the fact is that the job matters and for that people pays money too. None of the upper castes are engaged in sweeping or scavenging. If someone get a job at Nagar Palika, they very cleverly get them assigned office work and after some years are promoted as Safai Nayaks too, which is a supervisory job. This complains has come to me whenever I have meetings with people. They say what we have got in return. Our jobs have been offered to others but we do not get their jobs. And it was there, some of us felt that the government must have a long term compressive plan to eradicate manual scavenging. One is complete rehabilitation of the women and men engaged directly in it. Let them offer houses and agricultural land to them. That apart, youths must be given technical training, computer and other skills. A bigger social awakening needs to go in the community against this so that the new young in the community reject this work.

We have worked on the latter basis. We have example of women engaged in zardosi work now. Many of them are learning computer skills and sewing and designing. Some of them do agricultural work in certain pockets that we worked. The point is government must build us up raising social issues and not deal this issue in economic and law term only.

It is therefore essential that the government of India provide a specific reservation for those engaged in manual scavenging and their children in non-sanitation occupation so that they move ahead and are completely delinked from this. There are number of youths, boys and girls who have capacities and qualification for doing so. They must be trained and employed in various jobs which are not related to sanitation or cleaning etc.

All the municipalities who fail to pay the daily wage worker ‘Safai Mazdooors’ on time should be penalized. But then there is a need to look beyond organized sanitary workers. There is no doubt that we must eliminate all forms of scavenging including those who clean the sewage but priority wise, it is essential for us to first rehabilitate the women engaged in manual scavenging, working in private toilets and carrying night soil. It would be good if they are identified and rehabilitated. A rehabilitation schemes cannot be done in isolation and hence it would be good if they are provided houses along with other communities. We have seen houses for Balmikis in certain places constructed by municipalities in the outskirts of cities named as ‘Balmiki bastis’ but it is time to be more aggressively provided them houses along with other communities. So, in the general housing scheme, government must ensure houses for those who have left manual scavenging. It would be good that such bastis which isolated the community further are not developed further. Instead, all must get houses along with other employees or in mixed localities.

There are issues of Muslim Safai workers like Helas and Halalkhors. There condition is worst then the non-Muslims as they have been denied even the jobs in the municipality and have no access to reservation in jobs. Muslim Swachchakars are simply not included in the Scheduled Caste Category and it is the biggest violation of their fundamental rights of being discriminated on the basis of their religious identity. This is a case for all of us to bring in front of the Supreme Court who is looking into the matter.

Manual scavenging cannot be eliminated unless the community raises a banner of revolt against it. There are inherent weakness too which need to fought. It is a difficult task but not impossible. Social movements cannot feel satisfied just because government has made a law and thrown money to rehabilitate the community. There are loads of issues with in the community and they need to be addressed by the community itself. It is equally important to prepare community and its youth in to the liberation theology of Ambedkarism which changed the lives of millions others like them. Ambedkarism became a model of challenging the status quo not just by law but changing our own selves too. No movement succeeds if the people who it is revolve around do not develop a passion of revolt against a system which subjugated them.

Having said so, it is important that this issue does not relegate to mere manual scavenging communities. It is our national duty, a duty of humanists, human rights defenders and social movements that this crime against humanity is arrested and done away with soonest. Hence we cannot absolve the rest of the society, which remained mute or may have enjoyed this subjugation for centuries. Manual scavenging remains a curse to our society and it cannot be confine to be the issue of the community itself who is on the receiving end. It is a war against discrimination and hidden apartheid which existed in our society. A nation like India need to get rid of it to be counted as a civilized nation and that would be possible when we see that no individual is cleaning human excreta of others and each of those who have been traditionally doing it are settled with honor.

World over, democratic societies have apologized to their indigenous people for the historic wrongs that they have committed to them. In India, Dalits have faced this historical wrong for years. The Manual scavengers remain at the lowest rung and faced the trauma of this ‘traditional’ ‘duty’ which is a crime against humanity. It is time that our law makers actually apologize for this historic wrong done to the Swachchakar Samaj. Let the parliament in unison apologize for the historical crime that the country has committed against manual scavenging and in the form of untouchability so that they too feel that this country actually is repenting for what has been done to them. An apology or good will gesture by Indian parliament and assemblies would help us make a civilized society which we all would be proud of.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com twitter : freetohumanity skype : vbrawat Facebook : Vidya Bhushan Rawat [email protected]



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