Policy Watch Comment

Track these job destruction numbers

As numbers become data and move from being just a random rearrangement of 0-9, they speak volumes about peoples, nations, and their objectives. They form the basis of government policies, and have the intrinsic potential to change lives, correct historical wrongs and national trajectories.

The last election results, we were told, were a message from ‘Aspirational India’ and one of the promises made by the incoming government was the creation of sufficient jobs. Unfortunately, despite all the talk about outcome-oriented policies, the latest report from the Ministry of Labour indicates that instead of adding new jobs, the April-June 2015 quarter saw 43,000 people actually lose jobs. This underwhelming performance has set off alarm bells, combined in equal measure with denial, hand-wringing and loud calls for more accurate employment data.

While these numbers must worry us, a report about the government having identified 12,226 manual scavengers across 12 States for rehabilitation under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should actually concern us equally, if not more; the report added that a batch of 500 women has already been trained as taxi drivers.

The numbers’ shame

As a nation we range from complete ignorance about the very existence of what Gandhi called a “national shame”, i.e. manual scavenging, to wildly differing official figures. While it’s no surprise that middle-class India is almost oblivious about the perpetuation of this degrading caste-based occupation, it should be a matter of grave concern that an activity that has been outlawed by Parliament since 1993 has such divergent numbers reported by various arms of the government.

As per the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 1,80,657 households were engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood; the report also recorded 7,94,000 cases of manual scavenging across the country. However, some gaps in the way the government defines manual scavengers leads most activists to believe that these figures are actually a huge under-statement. For example, the instruction manual for the ‘Survey on Manual Scavengers in Statutory Towns’ defines a manual scavenger as a person “being engaged or employed on a regular or frequent basis. A person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of appropriate devices (like high pressure water jet etc.) and using proper protective gear, will not be deemed to be a ‘manual scavenger’”. Surveys conducted by activists estimate that there are actually over 1.2 million manual scavengers in the country.

A definition that uses gloves as fig leaves, and euphemisms like “conservancy workers”, leads to a large section of our citizens remaining unaccounted for as far as official records are concerned. These include women (98 per cent of scavengers are women because patriarchy is rampant in this strata of society too) and others who are engaged in scavenging and receive food in lieu of payment, or work as contract employees indirectly employed by the Indian Railways (anecdotally the largest ‘employer’ of those cleaning excrement from railway tracks) and the numerous municipal corporations across the country.

Act and reality

With the passing of the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the government is required to ensure the elimination of unsanitary latrines. The Act also prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and tasks the government with maintaining a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation.

So why is it that despite legislation that has banned manual scavenging, activists who’ve tirelessly campaigned against it, funds being allocated to various programmes run by concerned ministries, and government after government committing itself to eradicating it, a small group of activists led by the Safai Karmachari Andolan still needs to conduct a ‘Bhim Yatra’ across 500 districts in 30 States, to create awareness about the practice of manual scavenging, the deaths in sewer holes and septic tanks, and the court orders and rehabilitation schemes that are in place to help stop this denigrating occupation? Why is it that their journey across the country doesn’t really make the headlines?

Is it because the issue is so far removed from our drawing rooms and we exist in such parallel universes that Swachh Bharat gets our ‘vote’ because a railway track will no longer bring on the gag reflex. But the millions of hands that will have a role in making it happen will continue to be ‘employed’ by the government despite legislation that is meant to secure rehabilitation and compensation? Can the Prime Minister and we really claim to be the only ray of hope in the world economy if even one of our citizens continues to participate in this diminishing and devastating ‘traditional occupation’? Can a nation in a rush to occupy pole position on the World Bank’s GDP ranking allow a single case of manual scavenging to continue? Just one look at the eight countries ahead of us and it’s clear that none of these economies is where it is today by turning a blind eye to what can only be called ‘slavery’ in some form.

Government intentions, policies, legislation and court orders will only go so far in achieving this aim. As the calls for more comprehensive and timely employment data tell us, what gets measured gets done. Isn’t it time we start tracking the job destruction numbers as closely as those of job creation? As a real tribute to Ambedkar on his 125th birth anniversary, Aspirational India must demand the creation of 12 million jobs this year, and an end to 1.2 million jobs. To borrow a phrase from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — because it’s 2016!

Barkha Deva, a commentator on the intersects between politics, governance and policy, is Associate Director at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies. These are her personal views.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 8:31:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/track-these-job-destruction-numbers/article8500078.ece

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