Manual scavengers conceive a ‘Knock the Door’ campaign to remind the government of the promises it made on August 15 last year to end the inhuman practice

“We are considering a new and effective law to put an end to the repulsive practice of manual scavenging,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had informed the nation last year in his Independence Day address.

Exactly a year has gone by since the PM made the promise of eradicating the inhuman and caste based practice but no law has been formed as yet.

Reminding the Prime Minister and the UPA Government of the promise and to push things forward, liberated women scavengers under the banner of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan have been knocking the doors of Parliamentarians since August 12 and urging them to support an early passage for the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012.

The Parliament is in session till the 30 of this month and the campaigners plan to meet and lobby with as many as 150 MPs in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar by then. They have visited close to 50 Parliamentarians at their homes till the eve of I-Day.

“When I was working as a manual scavenger in my village, I could not enter the house of our Sarpanch or the temple. Today, after leaving the occupation, I am meeting so many Members of Parliament at their home and their wives are serving me water,” said Chhoti Bai from Rajasthan’s Chittor.

While there were a few who refused to meet, the overwhelming response was positive with some MPs sitting down with their entire families to find out more about the issue.

Ali Anwar Ansari of Janata Dal (United) from Bihar, for instance, had a detailed discussion for over two-three hours with the women and said that the issue of Dalit Muslims was an important one to be taken up.

Some MPs refused to believe that such a practice still existed but when the women who were victims themselves told them that she had worked for 22 years and gave examples of scavengers from the MP’s own constituency, the Parliamentarian came around to the view and wanted to hear more about the issue, said Ashif of Jansahas, a voluntary organisation.

A document highlighting suggestions and issues with the draft Bill in its current form is being handed over to the MPs they meet face-to-face and being sent to those that they cannot meet.

There are close to 17,000 women who have given up the practice but their fate has been completely left out of the Bill.

“The silence that surrounds the fate of these women is making them ask whether they have committed a mistake by giving up the practice for the sake of their dignity before the law gets formalised,” said Ashif. By not addressing the rehabilitation issues of women who have voluntarily given up the inhuman practice in the Bill indicates that only continued degradation can help one achieve rehabilitation, while giving up the practice, an act of bravery, goes unheeded, he added.

Meanwhile, even as the Bill mentions ‘rehabilitation’ in its title, details of who is going to rehabilitate, what amount is going to be paid, in how many days it will be paid, is not clear in the Bill at all.

“When this was pointed out, we were told that these things would be clear in the ‘Rules’ portion of the Bill once it is ready. But we would like to point out that in other laws, for example, MGNREGA, everything is stated quite clearly in the Act itself and one can go to court if it is not implemented. So why not the same treatment be given to the Manual Scavenging Bill?” asked Ashif.

The Indian Railways is the largest institution in the country that uses dry latrines. “If there are a lakh manual scavengers working for the Railways, how are they to be rehabilitated is not very clear in the Bill. They are employed as daily wage labourers,” he pointed out.

Meanwhile, the Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha on September 3, 2012, by the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Mukul Wasnik. The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment. The Committee presented the recommendation report to Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in March this year.

The Bill prohibits employing a person as a manual scavenger who is engaged for manually cleaning or disposing off human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or on a railway track. Also, it prohibits any person, local authority or agency to construct an insanitary latrine or engage a person for manual scavenging.

If anyone employs a manual scavenger or constructs an insanitary latrine, he shall be penalised with imprisonment up to one year or a fine of up to Rs 50,000 or both. The penalty for subsequent offences is higher.

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