One of modern India’s great shames is the official failure to eradicate ‘manual scavenging’, the most degrading surviving practice of untouchability in the country. Merely because of their birth in particular castes, the practice condemns mostly women and girls, but also men and boys, to clean human excreta in dry latrines with their hands, and carry it to disposal dumps or lakes or rivers. Many men also clean sewers, septic tanks, open drains into which excreta flows, and railway lines.
People trapped by their birth in this vocation are shunned and despised. The anonymity of cities otherwise may free people of the disadvantaged destinies brought on by their caste identity, because their caste is not written on their foreheads. But manual scavengers are branded irrefutably by the loathed work which they perform.
Forty-three years after its prohibition in the Constitution, in 1993, a law was passed which outlawed the practice. But it was a feeble and toothless law, weakly and reluctantly applied. It was rescued only by extraordinary and sustained non-violent resistance by organisations of manual scavengers themselves. I have in these columns celebrated their collective actions to demolish dry latrines and proudly burn the baskets in which they carried human excreta. They also moved the Supreme Court of India to compel central and state governments to enforce the law.
One demand of some organisations and activists was for a new and improved central law to strengthen its accountability mechanisms, widen the definition of manual scavenging, and above all to shift the focus to human dignity from merely sanitation issues. Their struggles persuaded the central government to introduce a new legislation, which unlike the 1993 law, would be automatically binding on all state governments.
Particularly welcome is the acknowledgment in the preamble of the new bill, that “it is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity.” This stops short of the national apology which people who have suffered untold humiliation over centuries wanted to see in the law. But a clear acknowledgement of the historical injustice suffered by them would be a salve to their wounds.
The 1993 law defined a manual scavenger as “a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta”. The 2012 bill definition is fittingly more elaborate and inclusive, and includes “a person engaged or employed... for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an unsanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrine is disposed of, or on a railway track...”
But the advantages of the expanded definition are completely undone by the proviso that a person who cleans “excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be a “manual scavenger”’. No such proviso was there even in the 1993 law. It deliberately introduces a huge escape route: employers may merely issue gloves and protective clothing, which the Central Government notifies as sufficient, and this would be sufficient to allow the demeaning practice to persist.
Bring in innovations
The 2012 Bill explicitly prohibits construction of dry latrines, and employment of manual scavengers, as also the hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. But cleaning railway tracks has not been included, and “hazardous cleaning” is defined not by employers requiring workers to manually clean sewers or septic tanks, but requiring them to do so without protective gear. Our objection to manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is not just of compromising worker safety – which is no doubt important – but of human indignity, which would continue even if such manual cleaning is done with protective gear. And it is unconscionable to let the railways off the hook.
For sewer workers and railway workers, liberation will come by introducing technological changes which will render the occupation humane, dignified and safe, and also ensure that human beings do not have to make any direct contact with excreta. Technologies are available globally which both the Indian Railways and municipalities could invest in, which would obliterate the requirement for human beings to manually handle excreta. The fact is that central, state and local governments do not make these public investments, because human beings are available to perform this work cheaply, propelled by their birth in most disadvantaged castes and lack of other livelihood options.
The 2012 bill places a duty of survey on all local authorities, but the past experience is that State Governments are mostly in denial. They usually reject community findings, even when backed by strong evidence. This can be prevented only if there is a continuous system of joint surveillance, beginning with a joint survey by designated teams of government officials and community members.
The 2012 bill fittingly mentions rehabilitation in the title itself. But it does not take us much beyond earlier rehabilitation programmes which were introduced from 1993. The law should explicitly guarantee fully government funded school education for every child of school going age, with scholarships for higher education, and vocational and computer training.
Given the past experience of corruption and harassment in loans, and the fact that most manual scavengers are women, many of whom are older and with poor literacy, the scheme should be entirely grant-based. Women should have the option of receiving a monthly pension of Rs 2000, or an enterprise grant of up to Rs 1 lakh, supported by training and counselling facilities. Highly subsidised housing should be ensured in mixed colonies.
Public officials have frequently failed in their duties to identify, report and end manual scavenging, demolish dry latrines, and rehabilitate manual scavengers, and on their shoulders rests major culpability for the continuance of the unlawful and unjust social practice. The bill must introduce the offence of dereliction of duty by public officials under this statute, and prescribe deterrent consequences for these failures.
This new central law presents the people of this country one more chance to remedy an enormous historical wrong, of enslaving our people to painful lifetimes of humiliation and hopelessness. We should not allow another deliberately weak law to postpone once again our collective obligation to end one of modern India’s greatest shames.