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We keep prohibiting a prohibited Act

A unique protest against manual scavenging brought to highlight the filthy muck of administrative failure

We keep prohibiting a prohibited Act

"Stop killing us!, screamed the banner at the exceptional protest at Jantar Mantar on 25 September 2018. The protest by Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) led by Bezwada Wilson was a unique event on many levels. It is a rare event where students from JNU, considered to be the most elitist bastion of the radical intelligentsia, were rubbing shoulders with safai karamcharis, considered to be the most downtrodden among the labour force.

An unusual event indeed in which the most informalised and marginalised sanitation workers, even written off by many conventional left labour organisers as incapable of politicisation and rallying into political protests, were finding themselves at the vortex of a national political protest. In this uncommon convergence of the Left and the civil society, prominent national political leaders like Brinda Karat and Kavita Krishnan were sharing the platform of solidarity with civil society notables like civil liberties campaigner Usha Ramanathan and the RTI architect Nikhil Dey.

The sanitation workers were fighting desperately to save their own lives as 1790 scavengers have been killed while cleaning sewers since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, came into effect. It was as much a fight against occupational hazards, as it was a fight for their own dignity. They held up a mirror before a supposedly modernising society to stir its conscience. That they managed to do it in a striking manner was visible from the wide media coverage the event got, which made headlines even internationally. The dignity of India as a civilised and modernising nation was at stake. Even the irrepressible twitterati were repeatedly invoking Chandrayan to contrast it with sewer deaths.

This event, which brought the dirty underbelly of the otherwise sophisticated Lutyens' Delhi, also marked an explosion of consciousness—for social reforms against a persistent barbaric practice of human beings dipping into shit to unclog the sewers, inhaling hydrogen sulphide and other toxic fumes in the process and losing their lives. The otherwise sensitive left leaders would have returned from the demonstration wondering how to convince their own trade union bosses to address the issue on a larger plane. Trapped in their own conventionalism, the left trade unions only succeeded in organising the civic workers working for municipalities, earlier directly and now through contractors. But a large mass of automised and scattered informal workers cleaning latrines in individual households were left out by and large. The Left has remained clueless as to how to organise them in putting an end to manual scavenging.

SKA has successfully organised them as a class-group at the all-India level transcending their localised caste identities, primarily on the basis of their dignity. In this sense, they might offer some valuable lessons to the gargantuan-sized trade union behemoths of organised sector workers. More importantly, it poses more of a moral challenge than an organisational one to the advanced detachments of well-paid and high-skilled workers on championing their cause. Though it was supposed to be a national protest on 25 September, there were no reports of workers coming out in solidarity at the factory gates or in their industrial areas.

The problem is much larger than frequent sewer deaths. The Census 2011 recorded 7,94,390 dry latrines where humans clean human excreta. Besides these, there are 13,14,652 toilets in numerous small towns. And including other types of such toilets, there were a total of 26 lakh dry latrines in the country. As per the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 data of manual scavengers, there were 1,82,505 manual scavengers in the rural areas of the country.

The Union government passed the 'The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013'. The law enjoined the government to identify manual scavengers across the country through surveys. It also provided for rehabilitation. For the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, the government offers one-time cash assistance of Rs.40,000, skill development training up to two years with a stipend of Rs.3,000 per month, and a concessional loan for self-employment projects up to Rs.15 lakh with a capital subsidy up to Rs.3.25 lakh.

But, until October 2017, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has identified only 13,384 manual scavengers (4375 in urban and 9014 in rural) in 11 states of India. Of these, 12,640 received the one-time cash assistance (Rs.40,000) from the government and 4,643 received vocational training. No wonder the enforcement was pathetic as the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, entrusted with the responsibility of rehabilitation, was operating with a budget of Rs.5 crore! Prime Minister Modi's aggressive thrust on Swachch Bharat provided an excellent opportunity to the recalcitrant bureaucrats to act. The much-needed funds too would have come. But their failure is unpardonable.

In fact, earlier in 1993 itself there was an Act called Employment of Manual Scavengers (Prohibition) Act. A National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was also created in 1993 to monitor the effective implementation of the law. But only effective implementation record of the successive governments is to come up with another law in 2013 after 20 years! The latest law again bans the prohibited manual scavenging once again, "No person shall engage in or employ or permit to be engaged in or employed for any other person for manually carrying human excreta". The law says that no person shall construct or maintain a dry latrine. But the law miserably fails to ban engagement of labourers by municipal authorities to manually clean sewerages and septic tanks. The practice continues despite availability of new technologies to de-clog and clean the sewers with machines. Hence, the deaths continue.

The forces that converged on 25 September succeeded in creating an explosion of national awareness on this vexed issue. Hope they would also reflect on their respective limitations and come up with an imaginative plan to sustain the momentum until Indian society rids itself of this filthy muck of a practice and the workers condemned to engage in this are suitably rehabilitated.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

B. Sivaraman

B. Sivaraman

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