Despite a new bill against the profession, manual scavengers say they have been left in the lurch

Prakashwati has worked as a manual scavenger for so long that she cannot recall the number of years she has spent removing the night soil and carrying it on her person. A resident of Dankaur in Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddh Nagar district, she was liberated six months ago from one of the most demeaning professions and promised rehabilitation.

But, she says the assurance remains an unfulfilled promise. “For six months now we have no means of earning any money. We were working as manual scavengers and sweepers in Greater Noida, but then government officials came and said we will have to stop this work as all unhygienic toilets are being demolished. We were assured there will be jobs and compensation, our photographs were clicked for some kind of a card, but there has been nothing so far,” she tells The Hindu.

Ironically, Prakashwati and her former colleagues were in the city recently to participate in a function to mark the passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, organised by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. The celebrations are a little premature, says Wilson Bezwada, the convener of non-government organisation Safai Karamchari Andolan.

“The passing of the bill is a beginning, but there are several ambiguities that need to be addressed. The first being identifying who a manual scavenger is and the loopholes that make the rehabilitation programmes ineffective. There seems to be no plan in the bill for the rehabilitation of workers who climb down into underground sewers,” he says.

According to Mr. Bezwada, the monies allocated for the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers have not been utilised properly. He says the annual allocation in several States either lies unused or inadequately spent.

The Cabinet approved the scheme in December 2006 with the direction that it has to be administered as a national priority to rehabilitate the remaining 3,42,468 manual scavengers and their dependents.

Mr. Bezwada says the first step towards rehabilitation is finding the exact number of those still being forced to work as manual scavengers. “There are States that have given an undertaking that there are no manual scavengers in their region; the Railways too have not been able to implement practices that were meant to eradicate the practice in a time-bound manner.”

Even as Prakashwati and thousands of others like her await rehabilitation, Union Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Kumari Selja said the government will focus on the issue. “They may have no other avenue of livelihood,” she said, referring to the need for a holistic rehabilitation plan.

The Minister said the passing of the bill means all unhygienic toilets will be demolished and States made accountable for eradicating the practice. “The last Census showed that there are about 26 lakh unhygienic toilets still in use, we have asked the local authorities to carry out fresh surveys, and have given a time period of nine months to end this. The local authorities will be held responsible for any dereliction,” she said.

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