Laws count for nothing when some of the worst offenders are government-run bodies, agencies and enterprises. The Central government is trying to push through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, under pressure from the Supreme Court; but, going by the experience of the past few decades, there is no cause to assume the dehumanising practice of manual removal of human excreta will soon come to an end. At the top of those employing manual scavengers are local bodies for clearing blocked sewer lines and the railways for cleaning soiled tracks at stations. Despite repeated calls for mechanisation, most of the work continues to be done manually, for the sake of either convenience or cost. Even as efforts are being made to ensure the conversion of dry latrines in rural areas to sanitary toilets, local bodies and the railways have stuck to the old ways. In India, unskilled labour remains cheap, and mechanisation of scavenging and modernisation of toilets in trains are unattractive in cost terms. But the issue cannot be allowed to revolve around cost; it must be made to deal with the legal and moral unacceptability of employing humans — mainly those belonging to some Scheduled Castes and Tribes — in dehumanising work.
So far, the implementation of the laws against manual scavenging has been inversely proportional to their stringency. The new Bill provides for penalties for employing people not only to clean dry latrines, but also septic tanks and sewers. The draft of the bill says the offences will be cognisable and non-bailable and tried by an executive magistrate. However, the issue was never one of deterrent punishment; it was always one of lax implementation. Till date, there has been no conviction under the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. Despite a communication from the Union Home Ministry to all States that employment of those belonging to SCs and STs could attract the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, there is no evidence of any offender being charged under this law for employing manual scavengers. A key feature of the new draft law is the emphasis on rehabilitation. True, there have been schemes specifically aimed at rehabilitating manual scavengers, but the current bill will have a twin focus on prohibition of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. After all, one is not possible without the other. But if the bill, waiting to be introduced in Parliament, is to be saved the fate of its earlier avatars, the local bodies and the Indian Railways will have to take the lead.