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Realising true Swachhata

Arun Srivastava expatiates on the haphazard implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission and the need to go beyond simply constructing toilets

Realising true Swachhata

The Swachh Bharat Mission ostensibly aims to achieve safe sanitation for all by 2019 but even with the arrival of the year, the mission has not acquired a pan-India shape. Worst still, it has become a mechanism to usurp public money. From the babus to big-ticket NGO operators, many have been looting government funds allocated for the project. In fact, the babus have been virtually auctioning the plan to make money by putting projects on sale area-wise and the NGOs usurping crores of rupees in the name of social service.

The contractors involved in the plan in a particular area may be small, but they operate in the style of organised contractors. Usually, the beneficiary has to cough up some part of the expense. In some places, the toilets are not even constructed and exist only on paper.

The most baffling part is the involvement of big agencies and NGOs in building toilets. They get the order from government agencies for constructing toilets in bigger areas. They have been celebrating the birthday of Narendra Modi to impress the officials for getting the work. While the government and the agencies involved in the mission claim to have accomplished the mission and managed to put a stop to open defecation, the fact remains that it has failed to make any significant dent.

Ever day, a staggering 1.7 million tonnes of faecal waste is produced in the quasi-urban areas. And this does not include the rural areas where open defecation continues. The scavengers either dump it in the local drains or nearby canals.

The government does not seem to have any well-defined programme or policy for achieving open defecation free cities, districts and villages. Politically conjured up programmes are only for short-term gains. The government talks of the faecal sludge management system (FSM). But this could be successful only when the government has detailed statistics of households. Even in middle-order cities, no attempt has been made to strengthen and introduce traditional sewerage networks.

The most important role in the FSM chain is that of scavengers. From extraction and collection to transportation and disposal, they are key to an effective FSM system. With appropriate training, the scavengers can be empowered to own and run FSM businesses; like cooperatives of the agriculture sector. The government can encourage use of the FSM system to manufacture fertiliser. It can make available the wherewithal and resources to work in a cooperative style.

People have been shouting at the top of their voices that open defecation and manual scavenging have been abolished in India. But the fact remains that it is still continuing to dictate our social life. According to a former member of the National Safai Karamchari Commission, Jagadish Hiremani, manual scavenging is still prevalent in Karnataka, where more than 2,000 families are involved in the practice.

He says that the state government has failed to utilise the funds provided by the National Commission for the rehabilitation and welfare of safai karamcharis in the state. Out of the total Rs 500 crore released by the commission to Karnataka during 2012-13 and 2013-14, only Rs 10 crore had been spent, he said.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), which is working towards the eradication of manual scavenging, has documented about 1,500 deaths since 1993. It is a shame that some of the big NGOs, which have been earning crores of rupees on the plea of rehabilitating the scavengers, have not been carrying out any research to find the living condition of these people. They have also not been bothered about the death of scavengers inside the drains while cleaning the waste.

The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) made a presentation to the Delhi government in August 2017, to carry out a project that would help in the eradication of manual scavenging to a larger extent. DICCI would also engage with the state financial bodies to secure loans to purchase machinery for scavengers going down in the drains for cleaning. The most unfortunate part has been the callous attitude of the government towards scavengers dying inside the drains. Even the Prime Minister's office, which launched the scheme with huge fanfare, has not come out with any concrete step to check it and help the scavengers. World over, sewers and drains are cleaned using suction pumps and high-pressure water jets.

According to the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census, 1,80,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. The 2011 Census of India found 7,94,000 cases of manual scavenging across the country. Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka. It is most prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

In March 2014, Supreme Court had declared that there were 96 lakh dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed. The situation could go from bad to worse. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, millions of septic tanks are being built in rural India. By 2019, some 30 million tanks and pits would have been dug along the Ganga. If the central, state and local sanitation programmes do not take up faecal sludge management as a priority, the onus will shift to the lowest rung of the society to clean millions of dry toilets built with tearing hurry. Manual scavenging is not only a caste-based but also a gender-based occupation, with 90 per cent of them being women.

It is imperative that the government turns its attention away from toilet construction and explore ways to empty pits without human intervention. An inter-ministerial task force, last year, counted manual scavengers in India and landed with a number as high as 53,236, which is four times the number written in the 2017 official records. But the data was only collected from 121 districts in the country. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told Lok Sabha in 2017 that the country saw 300 manual scavengers die that year. Of these, 12 deaths occurred in Delhi and 140 in Tamil Nadu, which was the highest. There are 7,40,078 households across the country where human excreta is removed manually. The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 said that there are 1,82,505 families in rural India engaged in manual scavenging.

The apathy of the government and NGOs towards eradication of manual scavenging is also a brutal violation of human rights. Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes and limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. According to the Environmental Sanitation Institute, Gandhi Ashram, a majority of scavengers suffered from anaemia, diarrhoea and vomiting. Right to development is also violated.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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