Thousands of manual scavengers to march across the country with the call for total eradication of the inhuman practice

More than 10,000 liberated women and around 50,000 manual scavengers are expected to traverse 10,000 kilometres of the country with a call for ‘total eradication of manual scavenging’. The two-month long journey will begin from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh next month and culminate in New Delhi.

Dalit women who have escaped the scourge of the inhuman practice will engage with people across 200 districts in 18 states and encourage them to give up the work as well. Attempts will be made to build a larger consensus and a movement to eliminate the practice, once and for all. Moreover, the National March for the Total Eradication of Manual Scavenging will be used to sensitise other sections of society and involve them in the liberation movement, says Ashif Sheikh, one of the organisers with Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, Jansahas.

“Manually cleaning, carrying or disposing human excreta in a latrine, a tank, a drain or a sewer line, open spaces or railway tracks, all of these have been banned under the new law that is expected to be taken up during the Budget session next year,” informs Ashif to a room full of organisers of the Maila Mukti Yatra.

In a 10 by 15 feet room in Sonkachh near Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, close to 80 manual scavengers have gathered to plan and make preparations for the march.

Pilot teams that had set out to different parts of the country have returned and identified issues that have to be sorted out before the long march begins.

“When people say it has been 60 years of India’s liberation, I find it difficult to believe for we are still slaves, working for others, picking up human excreta with our bare hands,” says Kala bai Lavre from Sajjapur district to The Hindu.

“Post marriage when my family told me I had to do this job, I used to cry for days and fell ill several times. But then I reconciled to the situation and did this work for 20 years. Only when my children started to go to school and other children discriminated against them, did I realise that we had to stop doing this work for the sake of our dignity.”

Kala bai took an oath in front of her entire gram panchayat that she would stop cleaning the upper caste neighbours’ dirt and along with 12 other women burnt the baskets in which they used to carry the excreta. That was not the end, but just the beginning of her struggle to throw away the chains of caste that bound her to the practice.

When the sarpanch came to her house and offered her Rs 2,000 to pick up the carcass of a dead dog, she bravely told him, “I will give you Rs 5,000 please send your wife to pick up the carcass.”

This was followed by several years of being harassed and abused by the villagers, with even attempts at the lives of her and her family members. In the face of stiff opposition, Kala bai did not break her resolve and is today known as a ‘neta’ by people who know her.

The struggle, as for her, is far from over.

She participated in the Maila Mukti March of 2009 that had started from the birth place of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, in Mhow. That rally saw more than 500 women giving up manual scavenging across 34 districts.

Though manual scavenging has been outlawed through various legislations in the Constitution, it continues to exist in degrading forms throughout the country. The deadline for its abolition as per the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition and Abolition) Act, 1993, has been re-revised several times over. As the practice does not affect either the ‘aam aadmi’, the middle class or the law makers there is little public outcry and no political urgency against age old injustice against a section of society.

But the manual scavengers are not deterred by this and continue to fight for their liberation.

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