The Worst Job in the World

Published: May 27, 2016 - 13:47 Updated: May 27, 2016 - 13:49

The latest Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in July last year reveals that 1.8 lakh households are engaged in manual scavenging across India. It’s time this statistic changed

Akshay Sharma Delhi 

There have been various events to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, including a discussion in Parliament over the Constitution that he fathered, yet the goal of social justice and equality that was at the heart of his mission remains distant. Nothing proves this more than the fact that the revolting and disturbing practice of manual scavenging continues to exist in this country, in the 21st century and 66 years after the promulgation of the Constitution that was supposed to ensure the emancipation of Dalits who have faced discrimination and persecution for centuries.

Delhi-based organisation Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), which has been the leading force campaigning to end this disgusting practice, decided to launch a yatra to raise this issue in a forceful way and to end the blissful ignorance in which most people of this country are living. The Bhim Yatra began in Dibrugarh, Assam, on December 11 last year and, travelling across the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari through all the states of India, ended at Jantar Mantar, Delhi,on April 13.

It is worth asking what the Indian State has done since independence for the eradication of manual scavenging and why it has not succeeded. It has not been due to a lack of laws. Section 7A in the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 dealt indirectly with manual scavenging but it was not sufficient. In 1993, Parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which directly outlawed employment of people as manual scavengers and prescribed a punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of `2,000. In spite of good intentions, this law proved to be completely ineffective and there were no convictions under it for 20 years after its promulgation.

SKA and other civil society groups demanded stricter action from the government. After years of campaigning and approaching various government bodies and figures including the prime minister and the president, they achieved some success when in 2013 Parliament passed a new law called Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. On top of that, in 2014, the Supreme Court delivered a judgment on a PIL filed by SKA wherein it instructed the governments of states and Union Territories to ensure full implementation of the laws against manual scavenging and take necessary action in case of violation or non-implementation. It also directed them to give a compensation of `10 lakh to the families of those who have died in manholes and septic tanks since 1993.

However, the situation remains grim in spite of all these legal barriers. In 2000, the Government of India said there were 6.79 lakh manual scavengers in the country whereas SKA came up with a figure of 13 lakh. The nature of manual scavenging is not just extremely degrading but also life-threatening.  SKA reported the deaths of 1,327 people in sewers and septic tanks in 2015. It says compensation has been received by the families of less than 3 per cent of the victims. The grim picture that emerges from these figures illustrates the failure of successive governments to end this practice. 

The organisers of the Bhim Yatra came up with a charter of 25 demands, made to the Government of India. The most prominent demand was an official apology from the Indian government to the safai karmacharis for “three thousand years of persecution”. Apart from this, their other demands include: modernising and mechanising the sanitation systems so that manual labour is not required and deaths in sewers and septic tanks are avoided; payment of
`10 lakh compensation to the families of those who have died in sewer lines since 1993 in accordance with the Supreme Court order; enhancing of the one-time cash payment given as immediate relief to liberate manual scavengers from `40,000 to `1 lakh; formation of a national committee to prevent septic tank and sewer hole deaths; establishment of a national mission to develop a sanitation system with advanced technology to break the link between caste and this occupation; ensuring that the cleaning work during natural calamities and disasters is not caste-based; demolition of all dry latrines from which human waste is collected by manual scavengers; and provision of opportunities to those involved in manual scavenging to start a new life by giving them land and technical education as well as alternative work choices. 

Talking to Hardnews, Bezwada Wilson, National Convener for SKA, expressed his anguish at the continuation of this practice. “The deaths that occur in sewers and septic tanks are political murders.” He also questioned the Swachh Bharat scheme: “The government is more focussed on toilets than human beings, building more toilets rather than modernising them will increase the need for manual scavenging.” Asked whether it is the government or society at large that has to change, he was clear, “The government is responsible for the sewer systems, so they have to take responsibility for the deaths that are taking place.”

The demand for modernisation of the sewer system is not new. In his famous novel of 1935, Untouchable, author Mulk Raj Anand gave a poignant account of the life of a manual scavenger and at the end presented modern technology as the way forward to ensure the emancipation of those engaged in this occupation. It is a tragedy that in 2016, we are still a long way from achieving that dream.

Worse, manual scavenging has taken new forms. There is indirect manual scavenging involved in cleaning places like railway tracks. This may not come under the direct purview of the law but needs to be checked as otherwise this menace will continue in different guises.

The 125th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar is not a time for celebration but for introspection. It needs to be examined whether his dreams and his vision for this country have come closer to being realised. The existence of dehumanising practices tells us that while there has been progress on many fronts, caste discrimination persists in a myriad forms, manual scavenging being the most hideous. As the Supreme Court observed in its judgment, it is an “obnoxious practice...across the country, a practice squarely rooted in the concept of the caste system and untouchability”.

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The latest Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in July last year reveals that 1.8 lakh households are engaged in manual scavenging across India. It’s time this statistic changed
Akshay Sharma Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews