Who will clean up the lives of manual scavengers?
Nandita Sengupta | TNN
It’s six months since India missed its last deadline to abolish manual scavenging since the practice was outlawed in 1993. For many, it may be difficult to believe that manual scavenging continues to this day, but even in Delhi, say activists, you only have to travel to a far-flung area such as Maujpur or Nandnagri to find the practice continuing.
It’s not that there has been no attempt at change. In Haridwar, women who make up 80% of the manual scavenger population, burnt their baskets — symbolic of the headload of human excreta they lug. In other regions, they loudly demonstrated in front of the district magistrate’s office, took out protest marches, organized meetings among communities. In a spectacle that should make the nation squirm, a group smeared their bodies with human excreta in public in front of the municipal office in Karnataka’s Savanur town last July.
Yet, officials have routinely turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the protests, says Safai Karamchari Andolan’s Bezwada Wilson. The most marginalized of Dalit groupings such as Doms, Balmikis and Bhangis have been tasked with manual scavenging and sewer-line cleaning for many long years, down generations. Those who work in manual scavenging, and by extension, safai karamcharis (or sanitation workers) belong to a motley group of Dalits, different clusters in different states — but in each state condemned by their name and nature of work that invariably falls in their lap by virtue of their caste identity. For instance, bhangi, that roughly means ‘broken spirit’ make up the dominant ‘most-disadvantaged’ Dalit group in Delhi. Mostly safai karamcharis, even after ‘rehabilitation’, their identity is stamped such that they are usually handed sewer or railway track cleaning work.
The dehumanizing practice of cleaning human excreta with bare hands, armed with a basket and tin plate exists to this day across the country — from Jammu & Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, from West Bengal to Rajasthan. As per Delhi government’s Samajik Suvidha Sangam, more than 37% total human excreta generated in urban India is ‘unsafely disposed’ and 12.5 million households do not have access to any drainage network. Dalit activist Rajni Tilak points out that “in Delhi’s outer areas, they have toilet bowls but no drainage system. So the excreta is simply pushed out into an open drain right outside the house. ”
In the south, in Tamil Nadu, “the state announced that it was free of manual scavenging three years ago.” Sagayam from Chennai says it is “wholly untrue.” It is left to the activists to prove that manual scavenging exists.
How many manual scavengers are there? Noone quite knows. The battle began on a note of denial. Till recently, say activists, the government refused to accept manual scavenging exists “in this day and age.” Then, on cases filed after it was outlawed in 1993, the courts put the onus on the activists to show evidence that Dalit subgroups were still engaged in this widely condemned practice.
It took independent India 46 years to outlaw manual scavenging and five states notified the law as late as January 2011 — a full 18 years after the law was passed. “There’s lack of political will. The swachchakar communities do not form a vote-bank and therefore no-one cares for them, not even Dalit leadership or Dalit NGOs,” says Yogendra Yadav of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. These disadvantaged groups are considered ‘untouchable’ even among Dalits. Adds writer-activist Anand Teltumbde, “It can be stopped overnight. It's not a formidable problem, given that the outer number of manual scavengers is pegged at 1.3 million.” Pointing to the “bureaucratic cobweb woven around the issue”, Teltumbde says “one fails to comprehend what is going on.”
The National Advisory Council (NAC) took up the issue last year, realizing the “huge gaps between what is claimed by states and ground reality.” It has made a number of recommendations including mooting a new law. “This is not a sanitation issue alone,” says NAC member Harsh Mander. “It’s a question of fundamental rights and dignity.”
If pressure is building up, at long last, in some sections, the Supreme Court dealt a body blow to the movement earlier this year, says lawyer Shomona Khanna, when cases were sent back to high courts and directions issued for a fresh enumeration, The focus on getting the numbers right in order to structure rehabilitation efforts. “21 writs were transferred to high courts in 5 months. We’re looking for 21 lawyers to take up the cases in 21 courts,” says Khanna.
It’s a long road still and as Wilson says, “It's not a fight of numbers.” There's now a new deadline on the horizon: March 2012, put forward by NAC. Will it make a difference?
Saroj is relieved that her vomiting has stopped. Throwing-up had become a daily part of her life since she was a 12-year-old. The 40-something mother of two started going house-to-house with her mother to clean human excreta from dry latrines in the city of Ambala in Punjab, when she was 12. She was the third generation of her family in this work. She cleaned almost 200 dry latrines and vomited every day of her life. She says the smell made her nauseous. But now, she wears a smile, while her eyes take on a faraway look as she measures the distance her life has moved since the day, last year, when she stopped being a scavenger. She says no matter how much she reassures herself that “that life” is behind her, memories come haunting. Saroj now works as a domestic help in three houses. Ask her if life’s okay now, she turns around to say, “There are so many more who need help to get out of this hellish work.”
FILTHY BURDEN: The practice of removing human excreta with bare hands exists across the country