Criminal neglect

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Photo: Vijay Pandey

Hundreds of manual scavengers from across the country have taken a break from work, determined never to go back to the degrading work. At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, those who are termed as voiceless are engaging in relentless sloganeering and drumbeating to mark the birth anniversary of one of the most iconic figure of India, a person who fought for the rights of the Dalits throughout his life, Dr BR Ambedkar.

Meters away from the spot, others are staring at them with a strange look, wondering what these people are up to. A passersby inquired from TEHELKA about their protest. On being told the protestors are the people who clean toilets but aspire for a better life, the response was, “Who will clean up the latrines if not them? It’s their job.” This reply reflects the rigidity of the caste system and its deep entrenchment in the mind of a common Indian.

Manual scavenging as a practice was abolished in the year 1993 by an Act of Parliament. However, the shameful practice continues even today despite enactment of a new law in the year 2013 with harsher punishment, called the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013.

If one goes by the socioeconomic census of 2011, about 180,657 households are still working as manual scavengers in the country and 796,000 cases of still exist. The International Labour Organisation describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:

(1) Removal of human excrement from public streets and ‘dry latrines’ (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal)
(2) Cleaning septic tanks.
(3) Cleaning gutters and sewers.

A deadline was envisaged for the implementation of the enacted law against  manual  scavenging. However, so far it has hardly been implemented, which is obvious from the fact that there are hardly any prosecutions in these cases.  Most parts of middle-class India do not even know that engaging someone in this job is a crime. This is the backdrop why an educated youngster can give the kind of reply mentioned above.

The practice is rampant despite stringent laws being in place. The most common sight of such scavengers are railways station where men can be seen cleaning up human excreta assembled on the railway tracks.

The gravity of the matter even forced the apex court of the country to reprimand the state governments many a times for their failure to implement anti-scavenging laws. According the court, there were 9.6 million dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed. However, the government and social organisations differ on this data.

But the problem of these scavengers is just not about their dignity, there are many health hazards attached with this work, which at times lead to their deaths. According to Bezwada Wilson, who has been working with the scavengers for long, since he formed the ska, no less than 1,200 people have died during the process of cleansing gutters. The primary demand of these agitators is that death due to scavenging work should be recognised as homicide.

Among their demands are that dry latrines should be abolished completely. The government should document deaths during scavenging; there should be modernisation of sewer tanks throughout the country; as per Supreme Court order, 10 lakh be paid immediately to those who died and many others, including creating a national fund for those who died in the process of cleaning sewers.

Wilson has just completed 125 days of Bhim Yatra, that involved travelling to different parts of India to create awareness and mobilise people against this inhumane practice. He claims that he has written to all the concerned ministries about their demands but there has hardly been any response yet.

Amidst this tragedy that has been unfolding for a long time now, the much fanfare created around the Swachh Bharat Mission appears to be a sham as it has not yielded much results in the past two years, claim these protestors and activists. The SBM mission plans to construct 12 crore toilets in rural India by October 2019, costing around Rs 1.96 crore.

Suman, one of those present at the meeting told TEHELKA, if the government is really sincere about its Swachh Bharat Mission, it should immediately meet all our demands and rehabilitate us.

Another protestor, pointing out at the ‘hypocrisy’ of the government said, “Everyone is talking about Ambedkar these days, but have they ever understood what Ambedkar wanted? If they had, they would have been the first ones to prevent us from doing what we do. This is so inhumane and barbaric. We cannot sit and have food with others. I am surprised how come you are shaking hands with me: it happens only once in a while that people are ready to touch us. Everyone is ready to appropriate Ambedkar for political benefits and for our votes but hardly anyone is willing to do away with the practices Ambedkar fought against.”

The protest culminated with burning of baskets, symbolic of those in which human excreta is carried by these women. The ball is now in the government’s court: It has to respond if it is really sincere in implementing values or ideas propagated by Ambedkar. Otherwise that great visionary will be reduced to a symbol of vote-bank politics. The government also needs to realise that Swachh Bharat can only be successful if manual scavenging is eliminated and replaced with modern toilets.