Manual scavenging is a caste based occupation wherein a certain sub-caste of Dalits are condemned to manually clean, carry, dispose or handle in any manner human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. Though it has been constitutionally banned for more than twenty years now, it is still found to be widely prevalent in the country. As per the Supreme Court of India judgment in the case of Safai Karamchari Aandolan & others vs Union of India & Others delivered in March 2014, there are 96 lakh dry latrines in India, all of which obviously employ people for its cleaning. Besides, every other day, there are numerous newspaper reports of deaths of workers while cleaning sewers without adequate protective gear or equipment. The people involved in the work are Dalits of which 98% are women, making this also a question of gendered discrimination.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 explicitly banned the practice of manual scavenging and continuance of dry latrines. This Act was however riddled with loopholes and was never adequately implemented as it was limited in scope to only six states and thus made no impact. In 2013, the Parliament passed another Act, called the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. The provisions of this Act were much more comprehensive in that it laid out statutory requirements to identify manual scavengers and provision of alternate employment to them, and also included workers involved in cleaning sewers, tanks and open railway tracks to be covered under this Act. Further as mentioned above, in March 2014, the Supreme Court passed a Judgement on the writ petition filed by Safai Karamchari Aandolan & others vs Union of India & Others which declared the practice of manual scavenging as violating Articles 14, 17, 21 and 23 of the Constitution. It also issued directives for the proper implementation of the 1993 and 2013 legislations as well.
There is no dearth of legal provisions to deal with the issue of manual scavenging, but that is certainly not sufficient to end manual scavenging. The crass disregard with which the government treats the issue of manual scavenging was exposed last year when the Prime Minister’s lauded National Skill Development Mission listed manual scavenging as a possible ‘employment opportunity’ for people. While one of the most publicized programmes of the NDA led Modi government is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the sanitation workers who form the central part of this issue have been ignored. In fact, the budgetary allocation for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers has been reduced drastically from 4,656 crores in 2013 to a mere 10 crores in the present budget.
There are also a number of other problems such as the asymmetry between official data concerning the number of people involved in manual scavenging which places at a little over 6 lakh and the findings of independent civil society organisations such as Safai Karamchari Aandolan which have identified more than double the figure. Similarly, the Census of India 2011 puts a different figure from what is stated in the Supreme Court judgment in 2014 on the number of dry laterines in the country at present. It is indeed questionable that when the government is not even honest or rigorous in identifying the numbers of affected people, how far can one rely on the government for the eradication of this inhuman practice?
Another matter of shame is that since 1993 there has not been a single case of prosecution for the employment of people to do the work of manual scavenging, even while many government bodies, the largest of them being the Indian Railways, continues to do so. The deaths of workers due to asphyxiation by inhaling toxic gases when entering sewers, tanks and open drains for their cleaning is often recorded as death caused by negligence or accidental deaths and never adequately compensated. Compensation that is legally required amounts to Rs.10 lakhs each for such deaths. There have been recorded instances of 1268 such deaths between March 2014-16 alone.
It is to highlight these and other issues of the people engaged in manual scavenging that the Bhim Yatra, a 125 day long journey to Delhi to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. B.R.Ambedkar was conducted. On this occasion, PUDR extends its complete solidarity and support to the struggle against the inhuman practice of manual scavenging. It reiterates that condemning people to caste based inhuman occupations such as this violates all the fundamental rights and constitutional principles. There must be a focused drive for the demolition of dry latrines which necessitates such practices and putting in place of sanitary solutions for the same. Moreover, the people engaged in manual scavenging must be rehabilitated, compensated, and given adequate support and facilities for education, alternate employment and other benefits such as medical care, housing etc. in a time-bound manner.
Deepika Tandon, Moushumi Basu