Opinion » Lead

Updated: November 21, 2012 00:38 IST

Sh*t, caste and the holy dip

    Bezwada Wilson
    Bhasha Singh
Comment (26)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

For any law to truly liberate those trapped in manual scavenging, their numbers must first be established by a comprehensive survey

Everybody declares with a full heart, and in a low voice, that it is a national shame. From Manmohan Singh and Pratibha Patil to Mukesh Ambani and Aamir Khan, the last mentioned a new convert to the Dalit cause, there is no dearth of people queuing up to take a holy dip in this sea of sorrow. However, the weight of this shame has done nothing to reduce the weight of the basket carried on the head by the scavenging community.

National shame

A national shame is a national responsibility but nobody wants to own up this responsibility. Three decades ago, when we started our fight for dignity, we had thought that most people were unaware of the prevalence and extent of this inhuman practice; they couldn’t possibly know that it was happening in their own backyard, that every day, lakhs of men and women manually cleared, carried and disposed of human excreta. We thought we could make people sensitive to this barbaric ritual. That remained the focus of our campaigns. Tragically, nothing has changed though awareness has supposedly spread among a vast swathe of people — the political class, policymakers, legal practitioners and the intelligentsia. Our goal — to wipe out scavenging — remains the same and nothing has changed on the ground.

Thanks to census data, we now have the actual statistics on dry toilets. But the wheels of change have not moved for those who continue to carry other people’s waste, compromising their health, honour and dignity. It is no longer about general ignorance; it is about awareness being defeated by the persistence of a casteist mindset that is rooted in patriarchal values. Jobs continue to be seen as clean and unclean with sections at the bottom of the caste ladder perceived to have been assigned by destiny to the unclean jobs.

Presumably we can change our toilets only when we change our mindsets. That is the reason no concrete action has followed assurances by successive Presidents and Prime Ministers. Till today, the Indian government has not said when we can finally expect to be free of manual scavenging. We have continuously overshot the deadlines without ever feeling ashamed about it. This nation has failed in its duty to provide a life of dignity to lakhs of its citizens.

The only difference between now and earlier is that in the past we didn’t want to talk about it. Today manual scavenging is in the news; it is part of discussions on TV shows. Even the governments are expressing intent of seriousness. But all this adds up to nothing more than lip service. How else can we explain the fact that although the Union government had allocated Rs.100 crore in the financial year 2011-12 for the eradication of scavenging and rehabilitation of manual scavengers, not even a single rupee was spent out of this budget? Worse, funds for the scheme to provide pre-matric scholarship to children of scavengers and persons involved in unclean occupations remain either unutilised or have been diverted to other schemes. The Planning Commission has refused to enhance the budget for the schemes citing lack of demand. No ripples caused, no questions raised — how well the system works towards maintaining the status quo and the casteist order!

1993 law

We already had a Central law dating back to 1993 against the employment of manual scavengers. Today, 19 years later, we have placed a new law in Parliament. What happened in these 19 years? Not a single person was prosecuted under the law. Admittedly, the law had many lacunae. But surely that cannot be the reason why not one person was prosecuted under the law. Why was no rehabilitation provided to scavengers? The simple truth is our lawmakers lacked the will and the conviction.

There is no doubt that we need a strong deterrent against a practice that forces people towards extreme indignity. A strong pro-people law will help in changing the ground reality. But first our governments have to stop being in denial. The governments at the Centre and the States must together announce a time-bound action plan. In 2003, various State governments reported to the Supreme Court — in response to a petition filed by the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) — that there were no manual scavengers and no dry latrines in their respective States. This was a blatant lie and they stuck to the lie until 2010, when SKA presented in court authentic evidence to prove that this practice continues in as many as 252 districts of the country.

It was then that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) decided to have a nationwide fresh survey to assess the prevalence of manual scavenging. The ministry constituted a task force to formalise the modalities of the survey. But it was wrong to infer from this that the government was being serious. Four ministries were involved in the task force. After the report was submitted, the Finance Ministry allotted Rs.35 crore to identify scavengers across the country. So far so good, but 13 months later the reality was that not one paper had moved. Finally, the government announced that it had dropped the survey because it could not find an eligible technical agency for the job. The government dropped the first and most important step to find out the number of scavengers in the country.

And now, suddenly, the government has discovered Census data. This is stranger still because the census figures are only for insanitary latrines: 7,94,390 dry latrines across the country where human excreta is cleaned by humans. Of these, 73 per cent is in the rural areas and 27 per cent in urban locations. In another 13,14,652 toilets, human excreta is flushed into open drains. Incredibly, the census adds that there are 4,97,236 toilets where the job of cleaning human excreta falls to animals.

Now how can we estimate the number of manual scavengers from this data? As if this anomaly was not enough, the governments of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand filed fresh affidavits in the Supreme Court in October-November 2012 stating that the census data is not accurate (i.e. they don’t have as many dry latrines). Presumably, no data is accurate — not what the SKA provided in 2010, and not what was collected by the Census of India. If the States also do not have their own numbers, then, what after all, is the correct number? How should we collect the actual figures? What should be the basis of rehabilitation? All this has left organisations such as SKA fighting pitched legal battles with the State governments just to establish that scavengers do exist in their States.

Gender insensitive Bill

It is against this background that the new Bill has been placed in Parliament. How is it different from the old one? Will it help? Not likely. The Bill is terribly gender insensitive, its language assumes that all manual scavengers and public authorities are men. In a context where the majority of manual scavengers are women, this is absurd. The rehabilitation schemes must respond to the needs, problems and issues of women in the Safai Karmachari community.

Secondly, the Bill delegates the responsibility of identifying manual scavengers, or conducting a fresh survey, to the local bodies. These local bodies have always been in denial and have in fact filed false affidavits in the Supreme Court. Does it make sense to assign the job of fixing the numbers to State governments and local bodies that have challenged the existence of manual scavenging and insanitary latrines in their areas? This task should be given to an independent agency working closely with the MSJE as well as civil society members and local authorities. The ministry has already approved a format and methodology for a survey which should be carried out on a war-footing.

The focus of the Act must be on liberating manual scavengers. The identification, demolition and conversion of insanitary latrines must be from this perspective. The nation owes an apology to the Safai Karmachari community for the heinous injustice done to it for centuries. Without this there cannot be justice in the real sense. No new law can function without an urgent, proper and comprehensive survey. Once this is done, the government should announce a time-bound action plan to rid this country forever of its shameful casteist legacy.

The liberation of manual scavengers should begin in the spirit of the final words of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: “… ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

(Bezwada Wilson is national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Bhasha Singh is a journalist and author of Adrishya Bharat)

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The article by Bezwada Wilson is highly appreciable as it brings
out the plight of manual scavengers,also safai karmachari Andolan
which is really projecting a genuine cause with impeccable integrity.
Manual scavengers are the most exploited community
who suffer a lot of social exclusion and social stigma. In spite of
their valuable work, they are very low paid wage workers.We can see
the plight of a scavenger engaged in carrying night soil.No
doubt,Ministry of social justice and empowerment has to take the
cause very seriously and should come out with a very comprehensive
solution.At least next generations should be befitted,protected and
empowered from this mean work through proper rehabilitation and
through their "skill development" so that they can contribute their
share to the economy in a meaningful way.

Posted on: Nov 23, 2012 at 20:46 IST

A true article written with noble intentions, depicting the mindset of Indians who are otherwise proud of the psuedo and superficial national achievements.
The ruling class and the officials want to purchase international fame and recognition, permanent membership in UN, want to be recognized as a world power..that is fine. Look at Indian drop human waste all over the country every hour of the day since it's commencement. More than 50% of the Indian people are not accessible to the basis sanitary conditions that contribute to health epidemics in many parts of the country.
People should stop open defecation and the medias and governments should take initiatives spreading awareness against such a shame!!
I think until the Government & the ruling class establish these basic things within the country are you worthy of seeking international reputation in the name of Indians???

from:  Clement Stephen
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 12:44 IST

All work have to be done, if not by humans then by machines with faculties to do such menial jobs humans do not want to or should not do. Every country has the garbage and sewage disposal problem. The dignified nature of the work come from the use of protective cloths.Be a surgeon or a garbage collector, both will need proper protective cloths. Governments in all levels must bring in laws about proper attire and protective cloths to attend to a certain work and implement it without any exceptions. Private employers are to be forced to join in the legislative requirements with severe fines for noncompliance. It was the hygiene and cleanliness factor that created the cast and having got there the cast system remained, no one cared to look at the down side and left the low cast as downtrodden. The whole thing is historical and if someone with a wider vision can change the condition very quickly, if they choose.

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 11:30 IST

The truth is that these men and women are not aware of their rights and don't even
know about rehabilitation they deserve. To be honest, they eventually might not be heard by Govt. so to earn livelihood they have no option other than keep doing this egregious job. As the author rightly points out, they have accepted it as their fate.

from:  Siddharth Pandit
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 10:37 IST

Let us hope there will be total elimination of this situation soon, since awareness beginning to dawn. Removal of waste - by manual or otherwise has to be accomplished. There is an inflexible and inexorable demand for this service - but the open question is how to meet the demand for this service - manually or otherwise. Because there is an inexorable demand for the service, and there is no other method provided to meet the demand, manual method persists. People continue to be engaged in that service, which is regrettable. Therefore, if not manual, by what means will the waste be removed - that is the question that needs to be answered. When such non-manual means are provided the demand will be met, further progress made in helping those currently engaged in this.

from:  Mukundagiri Sadagopan
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 08:04 IST

The “fight for dignity” is important. But, the important task at hand is to solve the actual problem. Fortunately, technology is available. Without waiting for expensive sewage infrastructure, the society has to deploy the available technology to address the problem of disposal of human waste. Barring that, some community or the other will be forced by those who have the means.
Plumbers are a very well paid profession in the US and they use modern machinery and technology. I hope influential people will fight for such a change in India.

from:  Som Karamchetty
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 05:46 IST

Good job by The Hindu in publishing this article. Great job by Wilson for his relentless effort on this cause. It would be good if there is a way readers could sign a petition to the government about it.

from:  omkar
Posted on: Nov 22, 2012 at 00:03 IST

This scourge is going to until and unless we wipe out the necessity of
manual scavenging.Our cities/villgaes don't have the required and
necessary infrastructure (drains,pipelines etc) which can be cleaned
with machinised equipments thereby obliterating the manual hands.Our
railways are also playing an important role in enhancing this
scourge.People rarely resist the nature's call on stations.Similar is
the condition of our garbages.These are the people who clear the
garbage before we wake up in the morning.So i just wanna say the need
of the hour is to change ourself first.The author is very rightly
pointed out that tragically nothing has changed although awareness has
increased.So lets resolve to clear our latrines ourself first,without
waiting for any "safaiwala"/"jamadar" to come.

from:  saurabh sharma
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 23:57 IST

It is a battle for the dignity of an individual..... it is a battle
for the fundamental right of an individual ,It is a battle for the
Humanity ....
Right against manual scavenging flows from the Article 15 of our
constitution and therefore should be established as per the required
The number of scavengers should be found out as early as possible so
that required measures could be taken at the earliest ,,at least not
next thirteen years could be wasted like that only .......

Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 23:18 IST

An excellent article capable to open the eyes of any reader who appreciate human values. I remember one short film made by one of the talented film maker and social activist on this issue few years back. The title of that film is lesser humans which potraits the appaling living conditions of manual scavengers in Ahemdabad and its peripherial areas. The article not only shed light in to the conditions of Manual scavengers those who clean human waste but all other human beings who are marginalised on the base of caste or by birth. The lines of Dr. Ambedkar given in the ending was also gives significant attention in this article.

from:  Appade Rajeevan
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 23:12 IST

Sounds like we require a nation-wide agitation as we have against corruption. That is the only way to get the people in power to sit up and take notice. First of all we need to see an affidavit from the Railway Ministry that they have done away with their employment of manual scavengers.

from:  Samir Mody
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 20:04 IST

Very good article. Appreciate the author and 'THE

from:  sandeep
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 19:18 IST

It is really shameful for our country that even after 65 years of our independence the people are still engaged in such heinous work. The government should spend its energy to remove such social barrier from the society rather than showing its reluctance.

from:  Sandep
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 17:20 IST

The need of the hour is PPP model in constructing this bio, less water
consumption, organic and other types of toilets and bath rooms all over
India, the local philanthropists, Industrial and Trading establishments, Influential Religion organisations and the Govt all unite and set up
this toilets.

from:  G srinivas
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 15:54 IST

Mr. Jeetendra Sharma,
I feel very sorry by seeing the comment posted by you. Sir, there may be
numerous scattered examples of charging Rs. 10000 or so by a manual
scavenger. But, who decides what would be the exact rate for that
activity! How do we say that Rs. 10000 is an exorbitant wage. And to be
very frank, all of us relate our self pride and dignity with the work.
Its not about money always!

from:  Kaustav Kanti Sarkar
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 14:27 IST

Actually few of the comments made here on this article, shows exactly
why this practice still remains in India. Force is not always
translated in just one way, there are many ways to apply to force.
When you don't provide any opportunity of a dignified alternative,
than it is also a some type of force. Those who say that it is only a
matter of employment, probably aren't aware of the reality of our
society. A nation which still fights most of its elections on castiest
lines, has a very deep-rooted patriarchal mindset. Those who say that
writer of this article doesn't know about the reality, perhaps don't
have an iota of the idea that this person has for last thirty years
done nothing and nothing else than working for reclaiming dignity of
manual scavengers around the country 24 X 7. How can you expect the
governments to do anything when they don't even have courage to accept
the existence of this practice? Alas, our own countrymen are oblivious
to it!

from:  upendra swami
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 14:20 IST

I am not sure if it is being done voluntarily like someone here is claiming.

But if it is being forced, the victims should band together, and seek justice.

from:  Suyash
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 13:41 IST

where are such activists in Tamil Nadu more so in urban centres like chennai with regards to manhole cleaning and in coimbatore where you see similar or worse situation.

from:  suresh
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 12:58 IST

The fact that human scavengers still exist is an enormous stain on the
purpose of the preamble of our constitution.The men and women who are
taking up these menial jobs should approach state governments and local
bodies to get rid of their plight.State governments should proactively
find out these unfortunate people and provide rehabilitation.Also
abolition of dry latrines with proper sanitation facilities at the
prevalent areas of this social evil should be done on warfooting.

from:  Shaik Rizwan Ahmed
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 12:13 IST

Articles reflect the frustration of writer with respect to lack of will from Government on this issue for handling this evil practice .Writer only stress is on making more stringent rule and on doing survey to get more realistic data on it . I feel writer should have stress on empowerment of the people involved in manual scavenging . A holistic approach is needed rather than just creating stringent law. As a fact no one is forced to involve in manual scavenging in majority of area. It's a sort of employment for people . You cannot just walk away by making law without caring for providing alternate employment to those involved in manual scavenging. They need to be rehabilitated and given employment or imparted some industrial skill.
At this point i would also like to criticize leaders like RamVilas Paswan, Mayawati who are ready to fight for reservation in promotion in Govt services but not have time to ponder on this issue

from:  Pawan
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 11:34 IST

I too accept that manual scavenging is very inhuman. But your opinion that it is still prevalent because of the so called "upper caste" is not right. Rather it is because the funds allocated to this cause are misused by the politicians/officials responsible. The injustice that WAS done to them was done and the nation feels very sorry. I do not now see any caste based inequality now; it is economical and is spread across all communities, the once called upper class have a worse fate as they even do not have reservation to help.This comment might be a bit off topic but I wanted to stop this blame game going on for a long time. India is a secular country now, and no one should suffer for the mistakes the previous generation did. But to eradication of manual scavenging, everyone who can be called a human is for it.

from:  Sriman Narayana
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 11:34 IST

The article is very appropriate and timely. Indeed manual scavenging is
a shame on our Nation and there should be constant writing and protests
against this practice. The article would be better if it had added some
more detail about the Bill and the Caste composition of the persons who
are engaged in manual scavenging.

from:  Kaustav Kanti Sarkar
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 11:32 IST

Today when we all talk about making our cities like Shanghai this is a national shame
for all of us

from:  Deepak Kumar
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 09:09 IST

About making people sensitive to this barbaric ritual, i think media
fails do it's part effectively. TV debates with expert panelists happen
these days but they range from global issues to silly controversies.
All the debates happen with the same intensity that some of the
important and sensitive issues are ignored.

from:  sandeep
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 07:45 IST

writers need to get to the point quicker. it would have been nice if the statistics had been given in the first paragraph and then devote the rest of write-up to irony, sarcasm and the occasional detail.

from:  ashok
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 03:21 IST

Author has really explained the real scenario and futile effort made by the government. Making the law is not going to help. We have to act together and find a quick solution. Its an appeal to all those lawmakers and executioners that please stop being in denial and act on it.

from:  Tarun Gupta
Posted on: Nov 21, 2012 at 01:00 IST
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