`System has become more pervasive'

Print edition : September 22, 2006

MARTIN MACWAN, A Dalit activist based in Gujarat. -

Interview with Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan.

Martin Macwan, one of 11 children born into a Dalit family, has worked ceaselessly for the cause of Dalit and tribal rights in Gujarat. As a young lawyer and an activist, he founded Navsarjan in 1988, a charitable trust working for the elimination of caste-based discrimination. Since then he has served as the national convener of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, has helped found the National Centre for Advocacy Studies, and was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2000. The public campaign against manual scavenging began in 1996 in Ranpur, where Macwan stumbled upon safai karamcharis who were still carrying human excreta. Within a year, Navsarjan filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court. Since then, the struggle for ridding the State of the practice has been an exhausting, endless one.

Excerpts from an email interview with him:

What are the major obstacles to the elimination of manual scavenging in Gujarat?

Navsarjan raised the issue of persistence of manual scavenging in Gujarat in 1997. Although its campaign has generated national and international debate, elimination seems to be a distant dream.

1. For the State as well as civil society at large manual scavengers are not equal citizens. The State denies the existence of the problem, but continues to receive special assistance from the Central government for rehabilitating manual scavengers. The State, and all its panchayati raj institutions, is one of the major employers of manual scavengers.

2. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, is conditional legislation. It denies an individual the right to file a complaint directly. Only appointed authorities can file complaints, within a stipulated time frame. Hence, to my knowledge, there has not been a single complaint filed under this law.

3. Scavenging is done primarily by Balmikis, who are the lowest in the caste hierarchy; [they are] treated as untouchable even by other Scheduled Castes. Their isolation and exclusion is historical, bringing about an internalisation of despair, hopelessness and cynicism. This degradation of [their] humanity has confirmed the belief that they could be secure only with their present status. Hence, there is very little willingness on their part to free themselves.

4. Most scavengers are women, who do the filthiest work, whereas the supervisors are men. The men of [scavenger] families do not mind women doing this work as long as they continue receiving money and leftover food.

5. Discrimination is rampant in public schools, resulting in a higher dropout rate. In many schools, even today, children from scavenger families are forced to clean urinals and toilets. The only option left for these children is to join the same occupation.

6. The State has left the implementation of rehabilitation schemes to commercial banks, who are not interested. Gujarat Safai Kamdar Vikas Board, founded after Navsarjan petitioned the High Court, has been doing little towards rehabilitation, apart from ensuring that the Chairperson and the Managing Directors are, by and large, from the Scheduled Castes.

What is the current status of the petition Navsarjan had filed?

Navsarjan filed a PIL [public interest litigation] in the Gujarat High Court in 1997, which directed the State to abolish the system and work out a concrete plan of action towards the elimination of the practice and the rehabilitation of scavengers. But the practice continues. Navsarjan has joined some others in a petition before the Supreme Court, which is pending disposal. However, my experience says that whatever the verdict, the practice shall continue, because the nation does not have the political will to eliminate the practice.

What has the response of the Gujarat government and State administration been like over the last decade to Navsarjan's efforts?

What can one expect from a State that, even after being reprimanded by the High Court for filing a false affidavit, continues to do so even today?

During a hearing in the High Court, one of the defences that the Gujarat government offered was that Navsarjan was into conversion activities! While there are some sensitive bureaucrats, by and large political parties do not think they have anything to do with the issue, except when using it to embarrass their opponents.

Gujarat has 13 Scheduled Caste MLAs and Parliament has 79 MPs from the Scheduled Castes, but manual scavenging is no concern of theirs.

How strong a role do caste and gender play in the continuation of the practice?

In Gujarat and in the rest of the country, too, scavenging is a caste-based occupation and the state, the panchayat bodies and the private sector make sure that they only employ a particular sub-caste, the Balmikis, for sanitation jobs, even when Balmiki youth are better qualified and have applied for other jobs. There is a lawyer just 25 km away from Ahmedabad practising law in a Sanand court but his identity as a Balmiki does not get him cases, except from his own sub-caste. When he does not get work, he does scavenging work.

Women, being unequal partners, and further down on the ladder of castes and sub-castes, do the filthiest work. Yet, no women's commission in the country has taken up the issue from a gender perspective. Most NGOs [non-governmental organisations] also shy away from addressing it because their leadership structure is parallel to the caste system.

How do you intend to carry forward the struggle?

We are doing the following:

Continue raising the issue in the court and in the media.

We set up the Dalit Shakti Kendra, which provides vocational education to Dalit youth, including those from scavenging families.

Navsarjan has started three primary schools that give priority to children from scavenging families.

We did a major padayatra for 100 days, covering 475 villages and 44 taluks, against untouchability practised by sub-castes within the Scheduled Castes. For the first time, 200,000 people had water and tea from common cups.

Navsarjan has formed a union of sanitation workers, which raises demands for more wages, better technology, prohibition on lowering human beings into manholes, better education for children, implementation of the law, and filing of cases when there is violation of minimum wage rules. All union members have been insured under a special Central scheme, although insurance companies are not willing to continue such schemes since they are loss-making ventures.

Could you give us a historical perspective on the origins of manual scavenging in India?

As human settlements grew larger and cities came to exist, the necessity for a sanitation system grew. One finds evidence that during the Harappan civilisation, people had created a system of disposal of human waste and grey water. As the caste system grew stronger, people who were considered impure were forced to do this work. One finds mention of the sweeping of public places as a caste-based occupation in Buddhist literature. During British rule, there were numerous mentions of conflict between scavengers and those who were not in the profession. Gandhi was the first national leader who raised the issue and linked it with independence. He himself took up the job of cleaning toilets.

On October 15, 1947, a private members' Bill was moved in Greater Bombay to abolish the practice. This was followed by the setting up of several commissions and debates in Parliament. The U.S. Congress also passed a House Bill saying that the U.S. would vote against any water and sanitation projects (of the World Bank) in India if it did not prohibit scavenger labour. It became a major subject of focus for Five-Year Plans. Navsarjan's campaign has once again drawn national attention to the issue but the system has become more pervasive.

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