More needs to be done to enforce the law banning manual scavenging.

This monsoon, India’s Parliament passed a law of enormous social significance prohibiting and punishing manual scavenging, which remains the most degrading form of untouchability and caste discrimination in the country. This is not the first time this practice was outlawed: untouchability and forced labour were forbidden in the Constitution itself and, in 1993, a law was first passed making the employment of people to clean dry latrines with their hands an offence punishable under law with a fine and imprisonment.

However, this law was weak in letter and poorly implemented. Governments themselves flouted the law with impunity by operating public dry latrines and employing manual scavengers to clean these. They falsely reported full abolition of manual scavenging and almost no one has been punished in 20 years of the law. If this humiliating practice has declined, it is because organisations of manual scavengers themselves have bravely battled the practice, publicly burning baskets that they deployed to carry human excreta on their heads, and demolishing dry latrines.

One of the demands of organisations of manual scavengers was for a more stringent law, in which ending this practice was acknowledged to be a matter of human dignity and not merely of sanitation. Introducing the Bill in Parliament, Minister Kumari Selja described the practice as ‘dehumanising’, ‘inconsistent with the right to live with dignity’ and a ‘stigma and blot’ on society. She also admitted that all State governments were in a ‘denial mode’ about the persistence of this social evil. The law passed by Parliament on September 7, 2013, corrects some of the infirmities of the earlier law, but still has many gaps.

The strength of the new law is that it is a central law, binding on all States, and not a State law requiring endorsement by State legislatures, which sadly took 18 years for the 1993 law. It recognises the ‘historical injustice and indignity’ caused to people forced for generations to perform this degrading work, and imposes strict penalties for its further continuance and a package of rehabilitation.

This law is more comprehensive than the past one, and brings in both the Railways and sewers into the ambit of its definitions and prohibitions for the first time. The earlier law did not cover cleaning of excreta from railway tracks, nor hazardous and demeaning practices in which sanitary workers were forced to enter sewer lines and wade in human excreta. Technical options exist today which can ensure that no human contact with excreta is necessary. But Railways and municipalities have refused to make the investments necessary for human dignity of the sanitary workers, and the new law does well to bring them under the law. However, there are still many escape clauses built into the new law, which allows governments to continue these old practices as long as they introduce ‘protective gear’. There should be no compromise that both Railways and municipal administrations must upgrade technologies to ensure that no human being is forced to come into contact with human excreta as they perform their duties.

The new law requires every local authority to carry out a survey of unsanitary latrines and manual scavengers within its jurisdiction. However, the experience with the 1993 law has been that State governments have greatly under-reported the prevalence of manual scavenging, and mostly continue to be in denial. Having declared that manual scavenging has been eradicated, officers reject community findings that these latrines and manual scavengers exist, even when confronted with strong evidence. If government and community activists conduct separate surveys, it is most unlikely that they will agree on most of the findings, and the time-bound eradication of the practice will be impossible. Therefore the rules should mandate a joint survey of dry unsanitary latrines and manual scavengers by designated teams of both officials and community members. There should also be provision for self-declaration by manual scavengers.

The new law provides that the employer shall retain full-time scavengers on the same salary and assign them to different work. It does not extend this protection to the large proportion of manual scavengers — including those employed for sewers and the Railways — who are contract and casual workers. The rules should clearly lay down that no person who is employed in casual, contract or regular employment in any of these tasks will be terminated, and instead will be redeployed in non-manual scavenging related tasks.

Finally, the law is still weak in specifying the duties of the State to rehabilitate with education, housing in mixed colonies, pensions, grants and soft loans, vocational and computer education. These entitlements should be spelt out in careful detail, if the transition of manual scavengers and their children to a life of social equality and dignity is to be accomplished.

They have waited far too long for the fulfilment of the promises of India’s Constitution, of equal citizenship. They should wait no longer.