affairs of state Karnataka

A dirty pop-up amid pictures of development

Narendar Pani  

Evidence that has emerged of Karnataka being the worst among the southern States, and among the worst in the country, in the continuance of manual scavenging is a telling comment on the failure of the trickledown theory that has been practised in the State since liberalisation. The data provided by the national socio-economic census of 2011 is further evidence, if any were needed, that the Bengaluru-centric strategy that the State has followed since the 1990s does little to meet the more serious challenges of development. The impact of high growth in a few industries in Bengaluru is uneven within the city, and its impact on the socially abhorrent practices in more distant parts of the State is minimal.

While the data on the regional distribution of manual scavenging in Karnataka are not yet released, there are several reasons why manual scavenging's continued existence in such large numbers could be the result of regional disparity within the State. Fifty-nine years after it was formed, Karnataka is still to overcome the challenge of bringing together regions with very disparate development records, ranging from the relatively developed princely State of Mysore to the extremely backward regions of the Nizam’s dominions and Bijapur.

It is hardly a secret that the attention Bengaluru has gained in the global economic mindset over the last decades has not spilled over into its neighbouring regions, let alone the districts of the faraway north eastern districts of Karnataka. The global abhorrence of manual scavenging thus takes a long time to reach the more remote districts. And without this widespread social detestation of the practice, manual scavenging can be difficult to eradicate.

Governments can argue, and have argued, that they have taken all the necessary steps to eradicate the practice. They have not only made manual scavenging illegal but made the law against the practice even more stringent in 2013. They could also insist that they are asking State government officials to act with alacrity when cases of manual scavenging come to light. But this argument comes up against a simple fact that governments do not like to recognise. The State government simply does not have the human and other resources to monitor daily practices in the over 27,000 villages of Karnataka.

The task of monitoring such practices must necessarily be left to the village panchayats. But if the village as a whole does not believe manual scavenging is abhorrent, it is very unlikely that the panchayat will think it is. A State government could theoretically decide it would punish errant panchayats by, say, cutting the funds to villages where the cases of manual scavenging have been found. But a determined and authoritarian panchayat can keep such information from going out. And in an environment of extreme competition between political parties for local support, the chances of a ruling party in a State taking on panchayats on the issue of manual scavenging are rather slim.

There are then no government-led shortcuts to the task of eradicating manual scavenging. We would have to find ways of changing mindsets of people in the villages where this is still a practice. The immediate target of such an effort would be those who have been forced by economic necessity and social pressure to carry out this practice. For this group, however, manual scavenging is just one of the many atrocities they have to face. Given an opportunity, most of them would like to migrate out of the village. But the opportunities are usually no more than the possibility of short-term migration. They can move as seasonal workers in agriculture elsewhere or, as is becoming more common, as construction labour in cities for a few months a year. Since they have to leave their families in the village for long stretches, and return to the village themselves, they are certainly not in a position to become the centre of a social campaign against the powerful groups in the village.

The only way forward then would be to reduce the need for manual scavenging. This would involve getting toilet facilities to the villages where this abhorrent practice still prevails. It must be remembered that the existence of toilets does not automatically reduce the need for manual scavenging. It is possible for manual scavenging to be used to maintain pit latrines. What is needed then is a major step forward towards more modern toilet facilities in even remote villages. The removal of manual scavenging is thus necessarily a part of a larger development exercise. As long as we only focus on growth as a means to development and ignore the ends of development whether it is in terms of malnutrition or sanitation, internationally deplored practices like manual scavenging will keep popping up in the middle of the pictures of global success in Bengaluru that Karnataka likes to project.

The writer is a professor with the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 1:45:36 PM |

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