There could not have been a more naked admission of the government’s all-round failure. A new law is already in the making to replace the 1993 Act to prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines. The current law was conceived erroneously and solely as a corrective to a public health and sanitation problem, rather than as a guarantee of justice, equality and a life of dignity for persons employed as manual scavengers. Ironically, there is little evidence on the ground of any improvement in public hygiene and sanitation standards. Almost the entire two decades since the 1993 law has been spent in fulfilling a procedural prerequisite. As the legislation was enacted under the Constitution’s State List, the same had to be separately adopted and enforced by various State governments. Then, the 2011 decennial population census findings that there are as many as 2.6 million insanitary latrines in the country met with stout official denials. Some governments even filed affidavits in the Supreme Court to the effect that there were neither manual scavengers nor dry latrines in their States, without disclosing details about any survey they had carried out to back their claim.
The relevant Standing Committee has just laid its report on the bill before both Houses of Parliament. The new bill addresses manual scavenging under Entry 24 (welfare of labour and working conditions) of the Concurrent List. While this may be an improvement over the current law, the real point is to recognise this debasingly inhuman and iniquitous practice as such. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment must incorporate this all-important modification to show genuine commitment to restore basic dignity to persons employed as manual scavengers. Significantly, the bill stipulates a prohibition on the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The Indian Railways, the largest single employer of this country, has helped perpetuate this caste-ordained practice for decades. They should also bear the bulk of the blame for contributing to the insanitary state of stations and tracks. Handling some 8.4 billion trips per annum and adding about 3000 coaches, it should not be beyond its capacity to equip trains with systems to manage faecal waste. A sustained campaign by grassroots movements, including public interest litigation, has sought to combat this grotesque form of violation of basic human rights but it has been an uphill battle because of official apathy. The time to end this callousness is now.