Out in the open

Published : Sep 22, 2006 00:00 IST

Tamil Nadu has miles to go before eliminating manual scavenging.

S. DORAIRAJ in Chennai

"AS promised in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's (DMK) election manifesto... the abhorrent practice of manual scavenging will be put to an end and alternative jobs will be provided to these workers. In accordance with this, action is being taken to provide training in other vocations and to rehabilitate 11,691 persons at a cost of Rs.50 crore." This is how the Tamil Nadu government declared, in its review budget for 2006-07, its intentions to do away with the age-old practice.

But reports from the districts indicate that the number of identified persons formed only a small percentage of the actual population of manual scavengers, mostly Dalits, and that the State has miles to go to meet the 2007 deadline envisaged by the National Action Plan for Total Eradication of Manual Scavenging.

However, the DMK government's admission of the prevalence of the practice marks a shift from the stance of the previous All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam regime, which had denied the existence of manual scavenging and dry latrines in Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK government had asserted in its affidavit of August 5, 2004, in the Supreme Court, which was hearing a public interest petition of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) and others, that manual scavenging had been eradicated in the State.

The claim was found to be untrue in surveys conducted between July and November 2004. The feedback revealed that the practice was rampant in 12 districts, including areas under the jurisdiction of town panchayats, municipalities and corporations. Enclosing evidence with photographs to their rejoinder, the petitioners sought a strict view of the conduct of the State in the proceedings.

Though Tamil Nadu was among the first States to adopt the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, its implementation has been tardy, thanks to lack of political will, say activists. The Act prescribes imprisonment up to one year or a fine of Rs.2,000 for employing manual scavengers or constructing dry latrines, besides making the offenders liable to prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

As the SKA survey pointed out, people using public roads as toilets is a common sight in several small towns and some cities of Tamil Nadu. Open-air defecation is prevalent even in the corporation areas of Chennai and Madurai, making manual scavenging "indispensable". Besides, traditional notions of `impurity' and `pollution' still discourage people from having indoor toilets.

According to Census 2001, of the 1.41 crore households in the State, more than 91.90 lakh did not have latrines within the house. Only 32.91 lakh households had water closet facility. The number of dry latrines in the State was estimated at 6.56 lakh and that of pit latrines at 10.35 lakh.

In terms of households having water closet facility, as many as 13 districts, including Dharmapuri, Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram, Perambalur and Virudhunagar, were behind the national average of 18.02 per cent and the State average of 23.22 per cent.

K.R. Ganesan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Ooragavalarchi Ullatchithurai Oozhiyargal Sangam, an affiliate of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said that considering the total number of non-flush latrines, the public and private sectors should together account for one lakh manual scavengers in the State. As most of the rural areas did not have water closets, the scavengers, mostly women, had to carry headloads of human excreta, he said.

According to R. Adhiyaman, founder president of the Adi Tamizhar Peravai, which has been spearheading the campaign against manual scavenging, 35,561 people are still engaged in this despicable job in Tamil Nadu. Many of the toilets that the government built were useless because they did not have enough water supply.

Even public sector establishments such as the Railways are not kind to these workers. "We can see women cleaning railway tracks filled with human excreta manually in the early hours of the day," he said.

These manual scavengers bear the brunt of the "side effects" of congregations. Adhiyaman claimed that at a recent festival in Tiruchendur, where several thousands of people gathered, temporary pit latrines were set up and 500 persons - all of them Arunthathiars (Sakkiliars) - were employed to remove the night soil.

A disturbing factor that poses a serious health hazard is the failure to ensure total sanitation in towns and villages where nearly 60 per cent of non-flush latrines empty human waste into open drains. "These people never opt for septic tanks as mandated," said P. Deivanai, a social worker at Omalur near Salem. The majority of people in villages seldom used the toilets built for them and preferred to defecate in the open air, she claimed.

Ezhil Ilango, a social activist who has done a study on manual scavenging, felt that the integrated sanitation complexes constructed for women in different locations had not had a significant impact.

Most of the manual scavengers work without proper instruments. They clear faeces on to containers, which they carry on their heads or shoulders to the dumping grounds; the lucky few have wheelbarrows. In many places they do not have gloves or gumboots, not to speak of other safety equipment, Ganesan said.

In this context, activists have welcomed Local Administration Minister M.K. Stalin's announcement that the government will earmark Rs.1 crore to distribute gloves, boots and safety equipment to the sanitary workers of municipalities and corporations. Besides, in the recent budget session of the Assembly, Adi Dravida Welfare Minister A. Tamilarasi announced that the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers had been formulated to organise scavengers and their dependants under self-help groups for training and economic assistance.

But even today, despite their appalling working conditions, manual scavengers are not in a position to demand fair wages. In many places, they get an average monthly wage of Rs.20 a house and on an average every worker cleans latrines in 50 households. The insignificant remuneration forces them into the debt trap set by upper-caste people. Ultimately, they end up in eternal bondage, owing to usurious interest rates. This results in their wards also taking up manual scavenging.

Members of the Arunthathiar community, who are placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and the hierarchy of Dalit sub-castes, are involved mostly in this caste-based occupation. Ilango said that though people of other castes were involved in the removal of garbage in the southern districts, Arunthathiars were forced to undertake this task. In the northern districts, `Adi Andhra' people, who speak a Telugu dialect, are engaged in the task. "It is unfortunate that call letters for vacancies of conservancy workers are sent to Arunthathiar candidates only, irrespective of their educational qualification. They can well be utilised for gardening and other maintenance work," he said.

Caste discrimination against these workers, more particularly in restaurants and tea stalls in urban areas, are on the wane, but they are still looked down upon by caste Hindus in rural areas, particularly in town and village panchayats. They still live in segregated colonies with little scope to utilise common facilities. In many villages, caste Hindus avoided giving them water in glasses or containers, Ganesan said.

The only silver lining seems to be the motor-driven pumps introduced in some towns and semi-urban areas to clean septic tanks. "We never use our hands as our predecessors did to clean septic tanks," said a Dalit worker of a private scavenging unit in Salem city. The city has 15 private agencies manned by Dalits engaged in cleaning septic tanks and manholes in houses and apartments. In several other areas, including Aruppukottai in Virudhunagar district, Madurai and Coimbatore, deaths due to asphyxiation while cleaning septic tanks have become common, Ganesan said.

Officialdom, however, takes every opportunity to project a rosy picture. "We have completely eradicated manual scavenging through the total sanitation programme" is the refrain of the district administrations, including those of Tiruchi and Coimbatore. Citing the recent example of panchayati raj institutions in the State bagging several Nirmal Gram Puraskar awards, officials claim that Tamil Nadu is a model for other States in sanitation.

They also highlight the success story of Keerampalayam village panchayat in Cuddalore district and the achievement of a women's self-help group in Coimbatore, named after Kalpana Chawla, in creating awareness among the public on a low-cost sanitation project. Sources in Coimbatore even claim that since manual scavenging has been eradicated, workers engaged in the dreaded practice have switched to jobs such as cleaning underground drainage systems and septic tanks. The claim only underscores the need for a path-breaking, scientific approach to this sensitive and complex socio-economic issue.

With inputs from S. Annamalai in Madurai, R. Ilangovan in Salem,

V.S. Palaniappan in Coimbatore and M. Balaganessin in Tiruchi.

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