2 Brothers Die While Cleaning Sewer at East Delhi Mall” - two days ahead of our 70th Independence Day celebration", the newspapers report of these bonded lives for whom freedom is alien. They remain in the clutches of slavery doing manual scavenging, which has been declared to be “disgraceful” and “prima facie a contravention of human rights and the right to live with dignity” by the Courts.
Post two legislations since 1993, the practice is still widespread and according to the India Census 2011, there are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. There are 13,14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains, 7,94,390 dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually. 73 percent of these are in rural areas and 27 percent are in urban areas. Several lives are sacrificed everyday while working in the toxic and filthy sewers.
The problem lies with the intrinsic relation of this practice with the ominously complex caste system; and the lack of will of the country to ‘annihilate caste system’, as propounded by Dr Ambedkar, has led to persistence of this system and its resultants such as the practice of manual scavenging.
Quite interestingly, the Acts, instead of emphasising upon total eradication of manual scavenging, contain provisions for regularisation of the same. For instance, the 2013 Rules, enacted under the Act, provide for situations where an employer may deploy a person for manual scavenging after providing for the safety gears and in the presence of the authorities mentioned therein. The Act does talk about mandatory survey to identify and rehabilitate manual scavengers, however, no concrete steps have been taken towards the same. The government, in a bid to declare that there are no manual scavengers, apparently conducts faulty surveys by refusing to enter the names of people who depend on manual scavenging to eke out their living but voluntarily come forward as they wish to break free of the menial job. Taking note of a DLSA report filed in a PIL before Delhi High Court, the Court pulled up the civic bodies over their claim that there were "no manual scavengers" in the Capital.
To an utter disregard to the idea of dignified life, and without paying any heed to the stigma and discrimination faced by the manual scavengers, the government is impliedly promoting this practice while leaving no scope for rehabilitation. Preposterously, a minister from Karnataka went to the extent of suggesting that this “practice should be legalised”.
Such apathy and depravity is highlighted when the government, instead of taking efforts to eradicate this evil, moves towards perpetuating the same by launching schemes such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which count on the persistence of manual scavenging. The scheme aims to construct 12 crore ‘non-sanitary’ toilets as they are being built at places which have no sanitation facilities, including septic tanks and running water, and therefore, would require manual scavengers. The recent budget granted Rs 9,000 crore to this primitive scheme which contains no mention of developing and using modern technologies for cleaning of these toilets.
Moreover, National Career Services, another flagship scheme of the government seems to promote and allow the hiring of the prohibited act of manual scavenging. Jobs like cleaning of sewers, descending into manholes, removing night-soil using a broom find a place in the National Career Services portal.
It is deplorable how these schemes have tried to promote and glorify this practice. But then, even Mahatama Gandhi viewed manual scavenging as an “indispensable social work” (as per JM Mehta in ‘Man and Mahatama’). As referenced in the book ‘Mahatama’ by DG Tendulkar, Gandhi defined an ideal bhangi (manual scavenger) as someone who “should know how the right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it".
Bezwada Wilson, founder and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation working towards eradication of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of the manual scavengers, lamented upon the fact that a senior politician once termed manual scavenging a “spiritual experience” and a religious duty. Journalist Rajiv Shah reported in 2007 that this politician, in an unreleased book, had documented that “I do not believe that they (Valmiks) have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood…at some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society…that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.”
On the other hand, Dr Ambedkar voiced against this evil and urged the manual scavengers to agitate in order to free themselves from the vicious cycle. Working on his philosophy, Bezwada Wilson has been able to rescue and rehabilitate several manual scavengers. According to him, “4 times as many Indians have already died in septic tanks and underground sewers as have died in terror attacks. Our government still does not devote half as much time and resources to combat manual scavenging deaths as it does to the issue of terrorism.”
This surely cannot be the way forward for developing consciousness towards dignity of labour in the society. We have the resources to develop cryogenic engines and various indigenous spacecrafts, and to spend in election campaigning; however, we are shy of utilising a tiny portion of it towards ensuring basic dignified life to our people. It is disgraceful that even after 70 years of independence, we have not been able to develop machines for cleaning our sewers and septic tanks, which should have assumed paramount significance in the Swach Bharat Abhiyan.
Through these schemes, the government may be envisaging a Swach Bharat but, in the present context, that definitely would come at the cost of millions of Un-Swach lives, who sacrifice themselves regularly for the cause of cleanliness.