After long years of inaction, even a small step forward can appear as a lot. With Parliament passing the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, India appears to have at least acknowledged the continued existence of manual scavenging, including within government-run bodies. The law is a vast improvement on the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, which saw no conviction in its 20-year history despite the widespread prevalence of the abominable practice. This time the focus is equally on rehabilitation of manual scavengers as on prohibition of the practice and punishment of the employers. Manual scavenging will continue so long as there are men and women poor and helpless enough to take it up. Without rehabilitation of those engaged in this dehumanising labour, manual scavenging will find ways to hide from the law, no matter how stringent the penal provisions for the employers. The new law recognises the problem as not just one of dry latrines, but as one of dealing with human waste. Irrespective of the nature of the latrines, manual scavengers have to work in extremely unhygienic conditions that put their health at serious risk.
Another improvement in the current legislation is the acknowledgment that local and railway authorities have been employers of manual scavengers. One reason the stringent provisions of the earlier law did not take effect was that the main violators of the law included government authorities. Local bodies trying to clear blocked sewer lines or the railways trying to clean soiled tracks at stations and toilets in trains have done little to introduce mechanisation. The current legislation sees protective gear and safety precautions for the workers as an alternative to mechanisation. For the purposes of the Act, those using protective gear and devices as may be notified by the Central government would not come under the definition of a “manual scavenger”. Verily, this is an escape clause for local and railway authorities to continue to deploy workers in manual scavenging. Even the present legislation would not have come about without the intervention of the judiciary. The Supreme Court has now asked the Centre and the States to provide a detailed list of manual scavengers who have been rehabilitated so far. Actually, funds allotted for their rehabilitation have been mostly unspent. The determination of the Centre and the States to rid India of manual scavenging can be gauged only from the results achieved on the ground, and not from the nature of the laws passed in Parliament.