BY HARSH MANDER
Employing manual scavengers to clear human excreta is punishable under the law. Yet, many institutions, private and public, continue to do so with impunity.
They remain trapped in a vicious cycle of intense stigma, segregation, poor health and education, destructive coping strategies like alcohol and drugs...
Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR
Inhumane practice: Another long day at work for a scavenger.
The majesty of the law, and the might of the State, appears powerless to snuff out the tragic, shameful legacy of millennia, a practice which we call “manual scavenging”. It involves entrapping women, men and even children only because of
the accident of their birth into a hated and humiliating vocation, of gathering human excreta from individual or community dry toilets with bare hands, brooms or metal scrapers into wicker baskets or buckets. This the scavengers then carry on their heads, shoulders or against their hips into dumping sites or water bodies. Others are similarly employed to clear, carry and dispose excreta from sewers, septic tanks, drains into which excreta flows and railway lines.
In 1976, almost three decades after India secured freedom, Section 7A was introduced into the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, to make an offence punishable by imprisonment, compelling any person on grounds of untouchability to scavenge. It took another 17 years, in 1993, for Parliament to pass the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which rendered even voluntary employment of manual scavengers for removing excreta an offence, and another four years for the act to be notified.
In 2003, a remarkable national coalition for the elimination of manual scavenging, called the Safai Karmchari Andolan, led by S.R. Sankaran and Bejwada Wilson, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court. It described the persistence of dry latrines in various parts of the country in violation of human dignity, the law and articles 14, 17, 21 and 23 of the Constitution. It demanded that the Court issues instructions to governments for time-bound eradication of manual scavenging and for effective rehabilitation of those freed from this despised vocation.
The petition quotes the statutory National Commission for Safai Karamcharis to estimate that there are around 96 lakh dry latrines in the country. Successive reports of the Commission note with regret that manual scavengers are being employed not just by private employers but also by numerous urban local bodies, and most unconscionably, by the military engineering services and army, public sector undertakings and the Indian Railways. More than 95 per cent of the persons employed as manual scavengers are dalits. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment estimates the numbers of manual scavengers to be over six lakhs, whereas the Andolan fears that the numbers are three or four times even this. The problems with enumeration is that official agencies tend to deny the persistence of this outlawed practice, and in most places manual scavengers themselves do not speak out because of shame and fear of losing even this frequently insecure source of livelihood.
Instead they remain trapped in a vicious cycle of intense stigma, segregation, poor health and education, destructive coping strategies like alcohol and drugs, all of which shut even more firmly options of other dignified vocations, which in any case are barred by their birth in the most disadvantaged of all castes.
Most governments failed even to respond to the petition of the Safai Karmchari Andolan for almost three years, and when they did, it was after the petitioners persisted and the highest Court admonished the governments. The official responses are instructive, as most expend reams of paper and time to deny the very existence of manual scavenging. The Ministry of Railways told the court that until they install washable aprons at stations and totally sealed toilet systems, “manual scavenging cannot be totally eradicated”, but offered no time frame. Many defence establishments flatly denied any dry latrines. Municipalities possibly threatened municipal employees to retract from their earlier affidavits and claim that were employed for other tasks.
These official falsehoods have been nailed by moving, detailed affidavits, often with stomach-churning photographs, by countrywide activists of the Andolan. Many of these should be compulsory reading. From Ahra, Bihar, unlettered Dinesh Ram, now 15 years old, has been doing this work since he was nine. He tells the Court, “I hate this work. I do not feel like doing it. But my problem is that I do not know any other work”. Ramrakhi, who has worked since she was 10, says, “The gas emitted by the shit has spoilt my eyes, and my hands and feet also swell. It sticks to my hands and makes me nauseous”. Chinta Devi, like many others, says she hates this work, but has to pursue it to raise her children.
Kokilaben, a sanitation worker in Kadi municipality in Mehsana, Gujarat, testifies in an affidavit to the Court, “The human excreta discharged by people on the road is collected by me in a large bowl with the help of a broom and tin plate and stored in a trolley. When the trolley is full, I drag (this with the help of) my daughter and my husband… I carry the human excreta stored in plastic bucket on my head and while doing so the dirt falls on my body…I fall sick frequently… If I refuse to remove waste, I get suspended from duty by the Nagarpalika”.
Schemes for rehabilitation of manual scavengers have failed for reasons illuminated by an extremely insightful report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. He found the scheme “a prisoner of its own statistics”, since although government claims that it rehabilitated 2.68 lakh scavengers, the numbers of scavengers officially recognised did not go down, but instead rose further to 7.87 lakhs! The problem is that those scavengers it claimed to liberate were not those who were “rehabilitated”. The scheme instead gave loans to persons often not really manual scavengers, for low skill, low wage alternatives, ignoring factors of “habitation, cluster, aptitude, gender and motivation”. The gravest lapse was that the scheme never used the law that outlawed the occupation. “The law could have been invoked to ensure that the condition and circumstance of occupational entrapment were not created”. In 15 years, hardly a single person has been prosecuted for employing manual scavengers. State agencies themselves persist in violating this law.
The law and the court
In the public sector unit, the Kolar Gold Mines, not far from Bangalore, the Andolan established that it indeed had 245 community dry latrines, with 2,900 toilet seats, yet no public officials were punished. It even reported two dry latrines in the court of a civil judge in Nizamabad, employing one part time manual scavenger. The Andolan petitioned the court for its demolition, since it was outlawed. The learned District Judge refused to order the demolition of the dry latrines, and instead chose to give notice for “severe action” against the manual scavenger for his “highly objectionable… misconduct” in joining the volunteers of the petitioner organisation.
Vinod Dom has scavenged from the age of 10. He tells the Supreme Court, “I do not like this work, and people also hate me. I cannot do this work without consuming alcohol. Shopkeepers do not give us water and tea in glasses and even serve us food on leaves. They wash the money we give them”. He is determined not to bring his child into this profession.
Despite an uncaring State and disused law, activists of the Andalon are determined to realise their dream one day — of securing the promise of the Constitution, of equal human dignity, regardless of their birth, for all citizens of this land, which continues to be denied to more than a million dalits.
Send this article to Friends by