Sh*t, caste and the holy dip

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

November 21, 2012 12:25 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:13 pm IST

121121 - Lead - safai karmachari andolan
21th edpage sketch

121121 - Lead - safai karmachari andolan 21th edpage sketch

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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