SCAVENGERS who carry night soil on their heads for a livelihood are more or less a thing of the past in West Bengal, according to the State government. Ashok Bhattacharya, Minister for Municipal Affairs and Urban Development, Town and Country Planning, said that 120 of the 126 urban local bodies in the State and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, are absolutely free of such scavenging. "As of today, there are no human scavengers working in most parts of West Bengal. Such work may be prevalent in very remote areas, or newly added areas (including areas added to townships) but the different municipalities have specific instruction to address the situation," Bhattacharya told Frontline.
According to official statistics, there are still 178 people engaged in scavenging work, but they will not be doing the work for long. "We have set ourselves a deadline and by October this year there will no person in the State engaged in such demeaning work," said Bhattacharya.
The Minister said that one major difference between West Bengal and some other States on this issue was that all those engaged in this inhuman task were salaried employees of the various Municipal Corporations and received all the benefits, including living quarters, pay and allowances due to a Class IV employee of the State government.
In 1991, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in the State launched the Integrated Liberation of Scavengers Scheme. By this project 1,82,000 dry latrines were converted to sanitary latrines in six phases at a project cost of Rs.100 crores.
According to Bhattacharya, even as recently as eight years ago there were around 20,000 scavengers, mostly from Bihar, working in different parts of West Bengal. "Today, apart from a few in very remote areas, all scavengers have been liberated and no one has to carry night soil on his or her head anymore. We have provided alternative employment opportunities to all of them, and they are working in different capacities, as sweepers, peons, labourers and so on," he said.Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay