A national public hearing on rehabilitation of manual scavengers throws up several issues that need immediate redress to restore dignity to the community

From Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh, 14-year-old Ravi used to be a beneficiary under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) 2007 as his mother cleaned toilets in the village. One day, when she gathered enough courage to quit the job, Ravi's scholarship funds were stopped and she faced hostility from the villagers who said, “If you don't clean our shit, then who will?” Belonging to a family of six siblings, daily life has become difficult for Ravi. His mother is not getting any other job due to the stigma attached to her past one.

This scholarship, which requires families to be engaged in manual scavenging for at least 100 days in a year, provides a perverse incentive to Dalit households to continue in the occupation. Once the families stop practicing it, the scholarships are also stopped.

This was one of the findings of a household survey conducted by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a National Campaign for Dignity and Eradication of Manual Scavenging. Scanning five districts each in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, the survey established that 98 per cent of people engaged in the profession are women. But it was found that benefits of SRMS were given to 51 per cent of men in these three states. Of these, around 76 per cent were found never to have been engaged in manual scavenging. Of the 24 per cent of actual beneficiaries whose names were on the list, no one received the full amount they were told they were eligible for.

In the absence of a proper mechanism in the implementation of the scheme, the survey found the presence of scheming middle men working in connivance with fraudulent bank officials.

Middle men or commission agents would visit Dalit bastis telling households to sign on so and so papers as the government had chosen them as beneficiaries of a new scheme. The beneficiaries would never get to know the loan amount, sanctioning officer or other details of the transactions. After a while, the middle men would revisit them and hand over Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,500. Many of these people did not even know why they were being given the money or how much money had been borrowed in their names. In Madhya Pradesh, around 68 per cent of the beneficiaries were taken for a ride by the brokers, in Uttar Pradesh, 63 per cent and in Rajasthan 62 per cent.

“There is a massive scandal of graft between bank officials, politicians and middle men to fleece ignorant people who are given 50 per cent of the loan only but made liable for the full amount even as rest of the money is taken away by crooks. Collectors in villages must crack down on such miscreants and wherever such cases are found, government must waive off the loans or it would be condoning cheating and criminal actions,” said Dr John Dayal, Member of the National Integration Council set up by the government.

This survey was released at a National Public Hearing on ‘Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers and their Children in India'. Hundreds of people engaged in manual scavenging gathered in the Capital to narrate their individual testimonies.

Ramdulari Bai of Dewas in Madhya Pradesh had readied all documents that make her eligible for SRMS. When she submitted her loan application to the local Antyavasayi department for setting up a readymade garment shop, she was not only shooed away by the officials making a mockery of her age, but also insulted with crude jokes.

Ramdulari has not had the guts to go back to the department a second time.

Ms Shantha Sinha, Chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights asked for the submission of petitions to the Commission, which would then recommend action for each case. “If we do not work, you may catch our throat,” she said.

It came to light that Muslim communities such as Hela and Halalkhor have been completely ignored by Government programmes. These caste groups inhabit several states and have been as much a slave of this exploitative tradition as the Dalit Hindu communities.

“The law does not discriminate between scavengers of different religions or castes, you must report such instances and they will be taken up with the ministries,” vouched Mr PS Krishnan, a former Secretary to the government.

Coen Kompier of the International Labour Organisation, while stressing that it was primarily a human rights issue and not a sanitation one, hoped that over time it would also be treated as a job to be done by sanitation workers with proper equipment and dignity. Manual scavenging remains a blot of the face of the nation, concluded Dr Dayal.

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