The new Bill on eliminating manual scavenging with stronger accountability mechanisms can be a major milestone in our journey for equality.

A significant promise for social justice was made in the President's recent address to Parliament, on March 12, 2012, listing the union government's priorities as it touches the half-way mark of its present term. She said that her government “will introduce a new Bill in the Parliament for eliminating manual scavenging and insanitary latrines. This will also provide for proper rehabilitation of manual scavengers in alternative occupations so that they are able to lead a life of dignity.” A similar commitment was made to the Supreme Court four days later.

This law can mark a major milestone in the journey for human equality in the country, because manual scavenging is the most degrading surviving practice of untouchability, which has endured despite six decades of republican freedom. It is a practice that requires persons to clean dry toilets with their bare hands, and to enter into sewers full of excreta, or clean railway tracks of human waste. The continuance of these vocations which humiliate a people only because of their accident of birth into certain castes degrades not the women, men and children who are forced to continue this work to bring food to their plates, but a country which is indifferent to their shame unbroken through centuries.

Narayanan, who pleaded the case before the Supreme Court for a new law, spoke eloquently to the judges of the anguish of the people trapped in this profession. He said: “The working conditions of the sanitary workers have remained virtually unchanged for over a century. Using only a stick broom and a small tin plate, the sanitary workers clear faeces from public and private latrines onto baskets or other containers, which they then carry on their heads to dumping grounds and disposal sites... Apart from the social atrocities that these workers face, they are exposed to several health problems by virtue of their occupation. These sanitary workers are made to literally go down the drains every day without safety precautions and supervision and without any emergency medical support…”

Ineffective

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, outlawed manual scavenging. The Government launched programmes for livelihood rehabilitation of freed manual scavengers; education of their children; and promotion of flush latrines in place of dry latrines. However, these remained ineffective because there was little political urgency and administrative will, as both the government and the larger society accepted the age-old practice of human degradation without outrage. Governments have tended to look at this as an issue of sanitation rather than human dignity as guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution.

This changed only when manual scavengers themselves collectively fought this scourge. Their stirring non-violent battles against untouchability I have described often in these columns: Country-wide, women and young people proudly burn baskets in which they had carried human waste on their heads, and demolish dry latrines. In courts, they hold public officials including even the Prime Minister to account for failing to implement the law to end forever this humiliating tradition.

It is acknowledged that the old law is too weak, and needs to be replaced with a new central law binding all state legislatures. This law must strengthen public accountability mechanisms, and shift the focus to human dignity from merely sanitation. It requires a more comprehensive definition of manual scavenging, to include manually cleaning, carrying or disposing human excreta in a latrine, a tank, a drain or a sewer line, open spaces or railway tracks. For those who manually handle human excreta in dry latrines, there must be immediate liberation and demolition of the latrine and the full rehabilitation package, within a very short, defined time frame. For sewer workers and railway workers, liberation will come from introducing necessary technological changes which will render the occupation humane, dignified and safe, avoiding any direct human contact with excreta, in a maximum of five years.

Making it work

Failure to eradicate both types of manual scavenging without reasonable cause should be defined as an offence by public officials, with severe penalties. Manual scavengers and dry latrines should be identified jointly by designated teams of government officials and community members, to prevent denial by governments which remain the norm today.

Earlier programmes for rehabilitation of released manual scavengers failed because an estimated 95 per cent manual scavengers are women, whereas the majority of schemes and beneficiaries are men. Many are older women, with little education, skills and experience; and a loan and subsidy enterprise programme is mostly useless for them. There is also evidence of large-scale corruption, lack of transparency, delay, uncertainty and harassment. Given this past experience, the scheme should be entirely grant-based, individual plans. Women should have the option of receiving a monthly pension of Rs. 2,000, or an enterprise grant of up to one lakh rupees, supported by training and counselling facilities. If she is in municipal or formal employment in government, semi-government or private companies, the law should require that her employment is not terminated, and instead she should be confirmed in regular employment in a task not connected with scavenging. Finally, in case she chooses, she should be permitted to sponsor one daughter or son to benefit for a soft loan.

In the end, new generations of these castes will be freed with education. All children who are in families in which one or more person is or has been engaged in manual scavenging, should be guaranteed government-funded school education right up to college or vocational and computer training, supported by a monthly scholarship and stipend.

It would be fitting if the new law contains a national apology from the people of India to communities which were forced to manually handle human excreta, for barring them from education, participation and human dignity, just because of their birth in particular castes. Only then will we be able to begin an atonement, in a very small way, for the humiliation of centuries imposed on a segment of our working people.