Back in May 2010, sixty Dalits, who had worked their entire lives as manual scavengers, burned the baskets they used for collecting human excreta outside the District Collector's office here. They had just been employed as sweepers by the local administration under a rehabilitation scheme. Five months later, all of them are without work, having been suspended, astonishingly, for not working hard enough.

“It took us a lot of courage to set those baskets on fire and announce that we were free. But now, for many of us the only way to feed our family is to pick up the same basket again,” said a disheartened worker.

Difficult, demeaning

The district administration's charge against the suspended Dalits is that they were “not working properly, being non-serious and lazy.” But the fact remains that they had spent the better part of their lives in one of most difficult and demeaning occupations — the inhuman practice of manually disposing of human excreta from dry latrines with brooms and baskets, work which violates human dignity and which is today banned by the statute.

“It is amusing that some time ago the government claimed that the district was free of manual scavenging. Now they say that no one in the administration is lazy except the manual scavengers! At least now they accept that the obnoxious practice still exists and by not eradicating it they are violating the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993,” said Rajkumar, State president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Collector S.P. Srow said that even though over 200 manual scavengers were offered jobs on a salary of Rs. 4,400 a month, they did not work properly and hence had to be fired. “It was ensured that they were rehabilitated even though the Supreme Court gave only guidelines and not directions. I made sure that they were employed as sweepers but they were not working at all and it would have been wrong to waste government money on them anymore.”

The Collector said he condemned manual scavenging and wished that the practice were eradicated. “Even today if they give an affidavit saying they will work wholeheartedly, I will happily make arrangements for their employment.”

A few women who had left scavenging after decades started the degrading work again because they are the sole breadwinners. “But we talked to them, made them realise that resuming the inhuman act will lead to greater health problems for themselves and be an impediment to a thousand others who are trying to end this practice once and for all. Finally, they pledged that they would die rather than contemplate manual scavenging as a job option,” said another woman, who had left the job.

Asked why the manual scavengers were employed only as sweepers, the Collector said: “There is an obvious lack of education and skill among the women but they were employed as sweepers because the administration needed more sweepers at that time.” He did not respond to a query how the need for sweepers was being met in their absence.

Occupational dignity

“The least that can be done is to provide a dignified occupation for them. A few months as sweeper can only be a temporary relief, not a sustainable rehabilitation package for the entire family,” said Wilson Bezwada, president of SKA, who has spearheaded the fight against manual scavenging and is now leading the Samajik Parivarthan Yatra, a strategic programme of bus trips from five different corners of India, through 20 States, culminating in New Delhi.

The aim of the yatra is to motivate and inspire others who are still engaged in manual scavenging to free themselves.

“Apart from a rehabilitation package to ensure a dignified livelihood, free education should be provided to those many generations of a scavenging family in order to ensure that the coming generations do not fall into the trap of poverty and caste,” said Mr. Bezwada.

“Instead of giving them grants for permanent employment, the administration employed them [the Dalits] before floods hit the area, made them clean the gutters and the sewerage system, which is as bad as manual scavenging. Then it claims that they are not working,” said Mr. Rajkumar. “For the satisfaction of the Collector, I gave an affidavit taking responsibility that the women would work. Also, residents signed that they were working properly, but none of the submissions helped. We met the Haryana Chief Minister, who gave us a patient hearing, but nothing was done,” he added.

“There is a law which makes this work illegal but the world gives enough reasons for an uneducated poor Dalit to still do scavenging,” said Mr. Bezwada.” Manual scavenging is integrally linked with the caste system and is imposed on certain Dalit sub-caste groups. Invariably, women, comprising 82 per cent of the caste, carry the burden.

Apology demanded

The andolan demands an official apology from the Government of India for having violated human dignity and human rights of safai karamcharis for so many years. Other basic demands include demolition of dry latrines and punishment to dry latrine owners and all those who forced safai karamcharis to clean those latrines under the SC/ST Atrocity Prohibition Act, 1989.