Part of the system

Print edition : September 22, 2006

IN KURNOOL, A protest by manual scavengers demanding the demolition of dry latrines, rehabilitation of their families and education support for their children. - U. SUBRAMANYAM

Near the showpiece HITEC City are a dozen dry latrines. The situation is worse in the other districts of Andhra Pradesh.

THE problem of manual scavenging is quite serious in Andhra Pradesh and nothing reflects this better than the location of a dozen dry latrines just 20 km from HITEC City in Hyderabad, the showpiece of the State's rapid strides in Information Technology.

Five years after the State belatedly adopted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, and announced a grandiose plan to declare the State dry toilet-free by December 2002 - the date was subsequently extended to December 2005 - the abominable practice continues.

A joint survey conducted in 2001 by the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Caste Cooperative Finance Corporation (APSCCFC), a State government agency, and the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) estimated the number of community dry latrines (CDLs) maintained by municipalities and gram panchayats at 25,762. Kurnool heads the list with 4,782, followed by Anantapur (4,173), West Godavari (3,503), Kadapa (2,324), Visakhapatnam (2,251) and East Godavari (2,248). The number of scavengers, including dependants, was put at 30,921. Since then no attempt has been made to update the figures. Apart from CDLs, the Andhra Pradesh Mission for Eradication of Manual Scavenging (created within the APSCCFC) estimated the existence of two to three lakh dry latrines. This is perhaps the largest number of such latrines in any State in South India.

"The deadline has come and gone. There has been no perceptible change in the situation at the ground level barring the demolition of a few latrines here and there. After the initial enthusiasm that followed the survey and the formation of the mission, there is no interest left," says Gita Ramaswamy, author of the book India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and Their Work.

The government, and more specifically the APSCCFC, claims that the majority of the manual scavengers have been rehabilitated as part of the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS). It claims that all the 28,099 scavengers and their dependants have been "rehabilitated in dignified alternative occupations" between 2000-01 and 2003-04 at a cost of Rs.61.43 crores.

In the same breath the APSCCFC talks of an outlay of Rs.23.96 crores for 2005-06 for the "scavengers rehabilitation programme" proposed for 11,975 scavengers/dependants. This, it says, will cover all the remaining families of scavengers, including dependants, and achieve the goals of the Andhra Pradesh Mission for Eradication of Manual Scavenging.

Civil society groups dismiss these programmes as a farce. "Rehabilitation has become a charade. The beneficiaries and the middleman share the margin money provided by the State. Banks are reluctant to grant loans but ready to `sanction and recover loans' on paper and `close the account'. The bank is happy having `extended the loan' to the needy. Elated, the government could claim the rehabilitation of yet another scavenger on paper. Content with his share of the margin money, the beneficiary goes back to scavenging. That is how you see so many of them being rehabilitated but the pernicious practice is still persisting," says Gita Ramaswamy. Last year she brought to light the existence of manual scavenging in Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's Assembly constituency, Pulivendula, in Kadapa district.

"If the government and the civil society groups are serious about the problem and want to break this vicious circle, they should take up a massive programme of demolishing the dry latrines across the State. That would effectively end the problem once and for all. Then a leak-proof, sustainable rehabilitation programme like allotting two acres of land to each of the beneficiaries could be thought of," she suggests.

Bureaucratic red tape and hurdles come in the way. Though a Mission has been created in the APSCCFC, no department is prepared to take responsibility for it. The APSCCFC says it is not equipped to take up demolition work and wants the local bodies to do it. The Commissioner of Panchayati Raj and the Director of Municipal Administration have the task of monitoring the ban in gram panchayats and municipalities, but manual scavenging continues in the absence of a proper sewage system.

The Railways and the Army, too, employ them. The fact that local authorities still have manual scavengers on their rolls and continue to employ them perhaps reflects the extent of institutionalisation of the practice. The Department of Social Welfare says it can only take care of the welfare of scavengers.

There is resistance at the local level in the absence of alternative sanitary initiatives, besides pressure from local people's representatives. The SKA cites examples of attacks on local officials who undertake demolition drives. Then there is acute shortage of space for locating alternative toilets in places like the fertile East and West Godavari districts. All available space in these districts is used for growing paddy.

Historically, the practice is seeped in the caste hierarchy, just as it is elsewhere in the country, and is confined to the bottom most sub-caste of the Dalit community. They are called Methar (migrant Balmikis from North India) in Hyderabad and Telengana and Paki in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Gita Ramaswamy narrates how Methars were brought from Haryana by one of the Nizams, Nizam-ul Mulk, between 1855 an 1860 partly because no local was willing to take up the demeaning job. Traditionally, scavenging communities, too, preferred to work in areas far away from their native villages to avoid the stigma.

"So there are these Madigas, one of the major groups within Dalits, from Nellore doing the job in Rayalaseema, Rellis taking up the work in East and West Godavari and Krishna districts and Yanadis in Ongole, Guntur and Prakasam districts. In Anantapur, bordering Karnataka, Halalkhors (a Muslim sect) were used," she adds. .

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