Millennium Post

Manual scavenging still a national shame

The scavengers or sanitary workers belong to the lowliest of the toilers among country's 450 million work force. Their working and living conditions which are worse than any other segment of the working class, have remained unchanged over centuries.  

With stick-broom and a tinplate these scavengers, men as well as women, clear faeces from public and private latrines, put it in baskets or containers and then carry these containers on their heads to dumping ground or disposal sites. This despicable practice is followed no where in the world except India, Pakistan and a few other South-East Asian countries.

Who, when and how forced a section of the poorest countrymen to do this dirty job and later called it their profession and also declared them and their profession as untouchable? It seems, at this point of time, it is difficult to trace its origin in a society bedeviled by unfathomable variety of castes, sub-castes and creeds. Even our working class continues to be a part of the caste-ridden society.

It was in 1993 that the government seemed to have woken up and taken serious note of this degrading social practice; and the Parliament adopted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines [Prohibition] Act, 1993 [SCDL]. The law remained on the Statute Book but nothing was done to curb this practice. Lately, even the Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik was reported to have acknowledged that though the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was there but so far there has not been a single prosecution, notwithstanding continuance of scavenging.

And now there is a talk of even amending the SCDL(P) Act, so as to ensure that manual scavenging is eliminated. The matter is now before the Supreme Court and the Centre has assured that the necessary amendment would be introduced in the monsoon session of the Parliament. Not only that. The government also proposed to bring forward a new comprehensive law which would ensure 'total emancipation' of sanitary workers involved in all forms of scavenging including sewerage cleaning and septic tank cleaning. Sewer manhole and septic tank cleaning which is most hazardous to human life, is still prevalent under the official patronage at all levels. The so-called comprehensive law, if and when it is enacted, would seek to emancipate sanitary workers working in these septic tanks and so on.

The scavengers issue was raised also in the Rajya Sabha by CPI MP, D Raja during the debate on motion of thanks to the President's address. He even suggested that government should call a meeting of chief ministers, especially of states where manual scavenging was prevalent. He pointedly reminded the government of its January 2011 announcement that a survey would be conducted afresh to identify in the country locations of dry latrines and the number of manual scavengers. He said 'it was a shame to note that even after 13 months the process has not begun.' More importantly, since the law was adopted, the country had five Prime Ministers, each of whom promised to eradicate this inhuman and illegal practice of scavenging. But scavenging continued.  

More recently, Raja said, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too announced in June 2011 that 'within six months, by the end of year 2011,' manual scavenging would be eradicated from the country. Raja wanted the government to answer what happened. He underlined that the railways were the worst culprit in this matter, since it was the biggest employer of manual scavengers.

Though the debate on ending scavenging system is of longstanding on which one after the other government of various parties have been found failed, the present debate started with public interest litigation filed by A Narayanan in Madras High Court on which the Court passed order in June 2011. It said that if the Centre failed to amend the law to prevent manual scavenging in two months, the Court would be constrained to direct the personal appearance of any of the high dignitaries from the PMO Secretariat or any other department.

The urgency to amend the law was further highlighted when as per the direction of the High Court, the Tamil Nadu Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on 10 September 2011, demanding that the Central government should enact an amendment to the 1993 Act so as to modify certain clauses including those pertaining to the scope of definition of manual scavenger, power to exempt, appointment of implementing authorities, power of executing authority to prevent environment pollution etc.

On appeal of the Union government, the Supreme Court Bench stayed the Madras High Court order but it also issued notice to the respondent A Narayanan who had filed the PIL. Narayanan pleaded for vacating the stay and he had his own reasons. He said the Singh had promised only in 2011 to eliminate manual scavenging by the year end but the year passed and no action had been taken.

Narayanan pointed out that apart from the social atrocities that these workers face, they were exposed to serious health hazards as they are made to literally go down the drain everyday 'without safety precaution and supervision and without any emergency medical support.' They are exposed to harmful gases such as methane, hydrogen sulphide which can lead to instant death. It can also lead to infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis, skin and respiratory system problems. The bench has yet to give its verdict on stay. But at stake is much more – human lives.

Apart from culpable railways, there are thousands scavengers working in big and small urban centres who go down drains and sewers to clean these. One survey also says that there are over eight lakh homes in the country where dry latrines are in use, needing scavengers, men or women, to clear those. This age-old heinous practice in Indian society has so far proved impervious. In modern times, during the freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi did make a strenuous effort to uplift scavengers in his own way but he succeeded only to a limited extent by focusing the national attention on this issue. At the same time, Dr Ambedkar too had made Herculean effort to raise the scheduled caste consciousness. His exercise could not go beyond Maharashtra and there it seemed to have not enough deep impact either.

In retrospect, it would appear that the class of scavengers in India too would need the rise of a Kanshi Ram and a Mayawati from among their ranks sooner or later so as to force the issue and break through socio-political barriers and lead the scavengers on to the high road of social emancipation.
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