If only laws could eliminate all that they prohibit, India would have been free of the scourge of manual scavenging decades ago. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill, which is to be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament, is another attempt to prevent employment of people in the cleaning, handling or carrying of human excreta. Despite the renewed stress on rehabilitation in the present bill, doubts persist about the will and the ability of the Central and State governments to end this dehumanising activity. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was indeed meant to address the very same issue, but implementation was lax, and tens of thousands of people continue to be engaged in manual scavenging. Not a single person was convicted under the 1993 law, although many States confirmed the prevalence of manual scavenging. According to figures released by the government last year, there were 1,18,474 manual scavengers or their dependents identified under the Self-employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) launched in 2007. Of course, one of the difficulties in eliminating this activity is the poor sanitation level in rural India where dry latrines remain in use. In the absence of networked sewerage facilities, even local bodies engage workers to manually clean septic tanks. Manual scavenging, then, cannot be just wished away without improving overall sanitation in the interior areas of India.
The proposal for the present bill came after the matter was brought before the Supreme Court following an order of the Madras High Court that the personal appearance of high dignitaries, including those in the Prime Minister's Office, might be required if the Centre failed to amend the law. Until then, the government was content to allow the ordinary course of rural development, at its slow pace, to draw out the communities involved into other forms of livelihood. Schemes such as SRMS were helpful to many, but did not guarantee a full escape. Most of the manual scavengers belong to the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes, and last year the Union Ministry of Home Affairs told all States that engaging or employing a member of SCs and STs in manual scavenging may fall within the ambit of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. However, there is no record of anyone being convicted under this Act for engaging a person in manual scavenging. If the 2012 bill is to not merely set another passing deadline, comprehensive efforts from the Centre and the States that attack this abominable practice at different levels will have to be made.