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Elimination Of Manual Scavenging Should Be Made
The National Priority

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

27 July, 2010

It’s a town sandwiched between two important cities of Uttar-Pradesh namely Allahabad and Kanpur. It is a town which was once represented by a former prime minister in Parliament. Unlike Amethi and Raibarelley, it could not become a VIP town which could have changed its fortune. Yes, we are talking about Fatehpur, a rural district headquarter in Central Uttar-Pradesh which is just 120 kilometer away from Allahabad city. Yet, the urban Fatehpur and its rural areas still have rampant manual scavenging. Painful thing is that in many villages even children are engaged to do this most inhuman work. It is not just Fatehpur but even the cities like Gorakhpur, Rudrapur, Laar, Mau, Mohammdabad, Kanpur, Lucknow, Musanagar and many other small towns too have the scavenging practices. Of course, on the record of the municipalities, it does not exist and they can easily make loud claims that they have already eliminated. Yet, reality is different.

While politically the district may have changed a lot in the past 20 years yet one of the major concerns which most of the human rights activists have is the power of the upper caste remain intact and the violence against the Dalits rampant, though not much reported in the media. Just a year back when two boys from Balmiki community died while cleaning the safety tank of a toilet owned by a Brahmin. When the gas emerged from the safety tank, both the boys cried yet there was no support provided by the owner of the house and they died. After a few days cries the situation came back to normal and resulted in an unfortunate ‘compromise’, with a few thousand rupees as compensation for the family deceased. The compromise was force by various political forces which shows how despite political change in Uttar-Pradesh the power politics still remain in the hand of the mighty feudal upper caste elements.

Though the Nagar-Palikas may report the number of the manual scavengers as nothing the fact is that the practice is growing and has been feminized. In 2006, by government’s own admission there were nearly Six lakhs Seventy Six thousand manual scavengers all over the country but the Safai Karmchari Andolan felt it was over 1.3 million that time. But the most shocking figures have recently come when the government says that the number of manual scavengers in the country is reduced to just one lakh Seventy thousand. The government has admitted its failure as they have not been able to stick to their deadlines to complete this. The question is how are they going to rehabilitate the people in the process? The government may consider it one of the economic activity yet it is a socio-cultural issue too that expose the dirty side of our system. By its own admission, the government is suggesting that it would completely eliminate the manual scavenging by December 2010. The government talks about municipalities and those related to it but the fact is as unplanned urbanization process start, the problem of manual scavenging is growing. The fact of the matter is that government agencies have been ruthless in their neglect towards the issues of the community.

Builders eye the Balmiki Bastis

The incidents are common in different parts of the country. If they are living in houses provided to them by municipality then they are under the threat as the builders and land mafia often eye those locations which are central of the city. It was the British who were kind enough to provide residential quarters to the community engaged in sanitation work. After the British left, the municipalities have done little to improve the condition of the people. Instead, most often, these municipalities threaten the communities often and target their houses. The recent example of incident in Karnataka is an eye opener where because of the fear the community people protested in the worst form by applying human excreta over their body to stop the demolition of their houses. That was a one of the most desperate protest by the community and one only adopt such in deep isolation and helplessness. We only react to those and therefore in most other places the people have been dislocated and one of the political parties ever raises their issue.

Take for example of Howarh municipal corporation case when they dislocated over seven thousand people from the Belilius Park in the middle of the city when an industrialist close to CPM filed a petition in the High Court that the living of the scavenging communities in this area was a threat to environment and the ‘honorable’ High court gave a decision to dislocate the vast scavenging communities mostly immigrants from UP, Bihar, Delhi and Haryana and see not a single political party came to support them. Mamta Banerjee who claims to represent people never ever bothered about them and most of these community people are living in a virtual hell in just 5000 square ft complex as many as 27 families staying together without any facility of toilet and bathrooms. People are living like insects and no air to breathe. How are their children going to study?

In most of the cases, both the parents go to work early morning around 6 without eating anything while handing over the homes and young children to elder daughters. The children face discrimination at school. Because of the burden at home most of them are unable to be regular at the school. The teachers remain mostly in caste mind. The boycott of mid day meal being cooked by dalit cook has been in the news for the past few weeks in Uttar-Pradesh, forcing the government of state to withdraw the Dalit cooks where the children are not ready to eat food being cooked by them. And one can never think that a woman from scavenging community would ever be able to become a cook at a school. It is beyond our imagination whether any one would eat food cooked by her. And why should government succumb to such nonsense where student refuse to eat her food. The government must not give food to the upper caste children. Let them bring food from their home and completely bar from holding any government positions in future.

Manual Scavenging in Uttar-Pradesh

Manual scavenging has not got its due attention from the government and policy makers because of its inherent racist nature. The governments on the one side work on papers and provide fictitious figures of development while hounding the community people for their ‘alleged’ violation of the ‘Elimination of manual scavenging act’. Uttar-Pradesh government last year went on spree to recruit one lakh sweepers in the village areas. This resulted in a massive response by even the upper castes applying for the job. For many living in their own world, it was like India’s biggest social change where the caste Hindus applying for sweeper’s work but is it possible for a country to find upper caste sweepers when their arrogant children refuse to eat mid day meal cooked by the Dalit cooks. Hence the reality of the upper caste sweepers remained like absentee landlord where the government salary is owned by the person who sign the register and sub let that job to a Balmiki. In fact, during my conversation in a number of Safai-Karmcharis, I found that even if they do not let their job done to others, the upper castes are carefully not given the sweeping and cleaning their work. So in a majority of Nagar-Palikas if some upper castes or non Swachchakar, non Balmikis have taken to sanitation job, they do not indulge in the job. They are simply doing office work. So, the appointment is in the name of sweeper while the work of office assistance is being taken. The corruption is so high that some of the community took heavy loans from money lenders to get the job and yet failed to so and now living in deeply desperate situation. Many of them sold their small belongings to get this ‘sarkari’ job. Unable to get any thing and trapped in the corruption they force their children into scavenging.

The tragic part in UP is that the Balmiki Vimukti Yojna is not visible at all. Perhaps the government does not think that manual scavenging is prevalent in Uttar-Pradesh. We have the footage of many town areas in Uttar-Pradesh where manual scavenging is in practice and the authorities are not able to do anything accept whenever the cases have come to their highlight they threaten the people with dire action. One is not surprised that such responses do not result in elimination of scavenging but put the people on alert and therefore they do not report to the government. Rehabilitation is an important area where the governments have miserably failed.

Municipalities: The biggest offenders

In Uttar-Pradesh the contract labor has further aggravated the situation and the government and municipal bodies must be taken to task for violating the basic human rights of the people from scavenging communities for their inability to provide honorable job grounds and social security for those in the work. The first thing about the contract labors is that it does not really fulfill minimum wages criteria and there is no social security, no health insurance for the person. Secondly, in most of the cases, it is being taken over by men as the nagar-Palikas are not appointing families and in that case it is the woman who has to face the brunt. In leave because of ailment and the payment gets cut. There are no holidays, no social security and working in such dire conditions makes you sick yet there is no compensation for your ailment. Contrary to this, the salary gets cut and by the month end the salary accrued is much lower than the person deserved. The pain gets aggravated during national holidays and festivities when rest of the world celebrates with their children, this community has to forget its own pains and continue the work for meager amount.

One must understand that for the community the job at municipality is like get rid of the filthy work at the private latrines for nothing. So most of them feel that municipal job give them a social security as well as better life as plain sweeping and cleaning streets looks still better than that dehumanizing work that has kept community subjugated for years. But during the past few years the government has completely put the sanitation services on contracts basis therefore resulting a much difficult condition for the community. However, the more difficulty lies in with fewer employees and more work. One must understand that the size of the original municipalities and sizes have grown enormously thus making the old arrangements virtually redundant. The Nagar-Palikas are on the spree of reducing the size of the work. So, almost same people are cleaning the garbage of 5 times more people at the moment.

And the biggest casualty in this is the contract workers who are forced to do the work much more then their energy. Those who are fixed become bosses. These contract workers have the worst case scenario at home. They feel that despite these hardships they would be confirmed as workers and their children would have a bright future. But Uttar-Pradesh is unique in this. The people who left the scavenging and joined Nagar-Palika’s contract labor actually could not afford to stop their wives from doing the private work of manual scavenging. I tried to investigate this matter at different level and through 10 years of my searching for private latrines and video graphing those filthy conditions, on many occasions my friends left me there to evade those dirty things. Even during the filming of these events, most of the friends leave the place.. One can imagine when we can not see how degrading and dehumanizing it would be for those who are involved in the work and yet it does not become our national priority. It does not hurt any one. The real reason for women getting involved in the practice is the brutal scenario that municipalities have done with the contract labours or simply called ‘Samvida’ in Uttar-Pradesh.

The municipalities of Uttar-Pradesh must be taken to task for most dehumanizing and insensitive attitude towards this community. Most of them never really pay salaries to these people on time. Yes, Nagarpalikas must be charged for dereliction of their social duty as well as their inability to pay the contract workers on time. In most cases they get salary only after four to six months. They shout, protest and the Nagarpalikas give them two months salary and again remain with the same backlog. If some one protests much then he is threatened with termination. This is most insensitive. Till a year ago, this salary was around 2100 which does not even fulfill the basic criteria of Rs 100/- wage per day thus violating the very principals of minimum wages act. The backlog in payment has created a crisis like situation in many places in Uttar-Pradesh as the female ward of the contract staff returning to the original manual scavenging. They charge the government for being more insensitive to their needs. Most of them actually said that they are resorting to this as they can not see their children starving. The government has betrayed their cause they charge. It is easier to say why you do this but the pain and sense of betrayal is always visible in the faces of the community.

New Urbanisation and more feminization of the scavenging

While the details that the governments are providing are those which come under the town area. There is no news about the newly mushrooming semi urban villages or rural townships which are not under the municipalities. In these areas normally the people from Balmiki community are concentrated outside the village in a ghettoized rural slum exclusive for them. They are allowed to live in the village because they are doing the scavenging work otherwise they would be thrown away from these villages. I visited many villages in Mohammadabad and then in Fatehpur district where such a situation exist that if people want to leave this profession they wont be able to do so unless there is a social security not only terms of their job but also their housing. When I saw young children of 8 years involved in the practice, I could not hold my self feeling criminal in this country. Parents have forced their children into it. More and more women have turned to it because they do not get job in the municipality and when their husbands do not get salaries on time they have to depend on this.

The new urbanization process has created many things. One is feudal values remain the same hence despite economic problems the families want to look better and create concrete structure around them. However, the most neglected things in any family in India is its toilet. That shows our habit how we treat the people who are involved in it. A majority of them have not been able to do anything related to their toilets. There is no sewerage system in the village. The one system which is being popularized by the municipalities is called ‘bahau’ which is a cemented platform and once you defecate you just pour water and the human excreta go directly to the nearby open drains. Even for that purpose, a sweeper is required. The other is ‘Uthau’ which is where a pot is placed to defecate and the person come and place the excreta to her basket and throw it to some isolated place, mostly in the dirty ponds around the village where pigs and other animals roam around. So, despite modernity, the urbanization has not helped reduce it. Most of the people of scavenging community are completely landless and live on the mercy of the powerful community in the village. Like in villages in Mohammadbad, it is Bhumihars and Muslim localities in the villages where most of the scavenging takes place. In Fatehpur too it is the villages dominated by Muslims where scavenging is largely visible and the community people clearly informs us that if they leave this, they will have to be out of the village.

Racial discrimination and need strong measures

Recently report of mid day meals being cooked by Dalit cooks were not being eaten by by the non Dalit communities. In the past few years many dalit women have been making mid day meals at different schools and there was no opposition. Then what happened all of a sudden. The fact is that in three to four places the first time ever, Balmiki women were placed as cook and that lead to boycott of the mid day meal by the others. It is tragic that any effort to bring this community to mainstream and putting them into non sanitary work has many challenges and obstacles. That is one reason that it is easy to tell people to move to other work. The problem is what is ‘the’ other work? If a Balmiki boy start a tea shop in a village, the villagers at first instance, would not allow him to do it and even if he or she start it, it would be only possibly depend on the community. When the government of the state has succumbed to the pressure of the other communities and virtually humiliated the women who were involved in cooking of mid day meals by withdrawing its own order fixing quota for SC-ST-OBC people, then we can understand the situation in rural Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar.

This issue can not be kept under the carpet as a small matter. It is a serious matter and we will have to introspect as why such things are happening. Once we analyze the things in proper perspective we will understand why we are unable to eliminate manual scavenging.

The government and its authorities will have to work more seriously on the issue. It is a shame that the authorities have not been able to do anything. The entry of non Balmiki communities in to municipal job and their subleasing the job to the Balmikis again show how the forces of status quo are ready to foil every effort for the welfare of the community. It is up to the government to show its will. The scavenging communities have been betrayed by almost all the governments and political parties. Their representation is fairly low at every available space. It is time to think specific quota for them at the non sanitation profession to completely alienate them from the traditional occupations. The Municipalities must be made accountable and must be prosecuted for their failure to provide justice this community. You can not eliminate manual scavenging by victimizing the victims and threatening the very people who we have subjugated for years. All the cases of violation of rights of the community must be tackled seriously and municipalities hobnobbing with builders to throw them away from their locations must be booked under SC-ST prevention of Atrocities Act.

India has failed to protect its own people. It has failed to implement the rule of law as far as manual scavenging is concerned. It is a national shame that the country is unable to eliminate it and that its children are still into this shameful practice. It is time it become our national priority and political parties and social movement takes the issue more seriously and not in symbolic way.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat
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