India’s Shame

Print edition :

In Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, going down with minimum support to clear a choked drain. Photo: K. Ananthan

Frontline exposed through an investigative report by Annie Zaidi in the September 22, 2006, issue the disgusting reality that manual scavenging existed in most States despite an Act of Parliament banning it. Excerpts.

“Shameful”, “degrading”, “dehumanising”, “disgusting”, “obnoxious”, “abhorrent”, a “blot on humanity”—these are some of the words used to describe “manual scavenging”, which in plain language means people lifting human excreta with their hands and carrying the load on their heads, hips or shoulders. If they are lucky, they get to use a wagon. Over the years books have been written, committees and commissions have been set up, laws have been enacted and crores of rupees have been spent to eradicate manual scavenging. But even after six decades of Independence, India continues to dehumanise, degrade and shame the most vulnerable amongst us. Governments in several States have denied in court the existence of manual scavengers despite evidence to the contrary.

In 2002-03, the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admitted the existence of 6.76 lakh people who lift human excreta for a living and the presence of 92 lakh dry latrines, spread across 21 States and Union Territories. However, when the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), along with individual scavengers and organisations which are working for the cause, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2003, most States hotly denied having scavengers and claimed that most of them had been rehabilitated in alternative professions. It took three years and strong admonishments from the apex court for the States to respond. Most of them submitted affidavits claiming that no dry latrines exist and, therefore, no manual scavenging exists. Since then, several affidavits and counter-affidavits have been filed.

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the SKA, says the problem is not about identifying, educating or providing alternatives. The problem is one of attitude. “No reliable data are available. We have conducted sample surveys with our limited resources and we estimate that there could be as many as 13 lakh manual scavengers in the country,” he says.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993. Says Wilson: “It took another decade for some States to adopt it. Some States refuse to adopt the law, saying that they don’t have any manual scavengers, despite evidence to the contrary, while some States adopted the law only after the SKA went to the Supreme Court. How can you solve a problem unless you first admit that a problem exists?”

A Frontline investigation found that the state of denial extends to the national capital. The affidavit filed by the Delhi government in the Supreme Court has accused the petitioners of levelling “bad allegations against answering respondent without verifying facts”. On a visit to Nand Nagri near Shahdara in the National Capital Region in order to verify, Frontline met Meena, who is a volunteer with the SKA and has been working as a manual scavenger since she was nine.

According to her, there could be anywhere between 100 and 150 families in that suburb working as manual scavengers.

Even Mahatma Gandhi’s Gujarat has not learnt to clean its own toilets. There are about 55,000 scavengers in Gujarat, according to the Navsarjan Trust, which has been leading the movement in the State. Its founder, Martin Macwan, believes that it is impossible to determine correctly the size of the problem because people refuse access to their homes.

Haryana and Punjab claim they have no manual scavengers. However, visits to localities in the two States showed that they had not only failed in their commitment to eradicate manual scavenging but also lied to the Supreme Court.

The Punjab government conducted a survey in 1992 after the Centre launched the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependants. The scheme, which was to be implemented by the States, enabled beneficiaries to get vocational training and be settled in alternative professions. It also provided households below the poverty line an 80 per cent subsidy to build flush latrines.

At that time, Punjab identified 12,444 scavenger families. In the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court this year the State claimed: “Since banks were not providing timely loans to the beneficiaries, the Punjab Scheduled Castes Land Development and Finance Corporation also started disbursing loans to them under its own scheme to avoid hardship to this class. The pace of the scheme was very slow as scavengers were not coming forward to avail the loan under this scheme; therefore, fresh survey for identification of scavengers was got conducted [sic] through Deputy Commissioners in all the districts of the State. As a result, only 531 scavengers were identified.”

How this statistical miracle occurred is anybody’s guess. Of the 531 people identified, the State claimed that 389 “rehabilitated on their own and remaining 142 scavengers have been rehabilitated by the Corporation”. Most of them are women and that they are “on their own” is clear to them.

Another major hurdle to the eradication of scavenging is the Railways. The tracks have to be cleaned manually since coaches have the “open discharge” system, and most stations are not equipped with concretised platforms that would allow waste to be washed away with jets of water. In their response to the Supreme Court, the Railways cited lack of money. The Railways claim that a proposal to fit fully sealed latrines is “under consideration” and “various technologies shall be tried out”, but refuse to set themselves a deadline to end the present practice.

In the 13 years since the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act there has not been a single prosecution; the Act stipulates imprisonment up to a year and fines up to Rs.2,000 or both. “The law is more like a scheme; it has no teeth. The powers rest with the sanitary inspector or the Collector, while the worker himself cannot file a case,” says Wilson. “Workers who clean open gutters, manholes and septic tanks, who are exposed to great risks, are not covered by the Act. Also, though the States have adopted the Act, most have not adopted the rules and regulations along with it.”

Interestingly, an audit of the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers for the period 1992 to 2002 by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) threw up a maze of conflicting data. In fact, the CAG report on the audit said the Rs.600-crore grant given by the Centre to the States had “gone, literally, down the latrine”. The latest scheme is a National Action Plan for the Total Eradication of Manual Scavenging by 2007, under which the responsibility for liberation and rehabilitation has been shifted to the Ministry of Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation, which is the nodal Ministry to deal with the issue.

However, the Centre cannot resolve this problem alone, for “sanitation” is a State subject and manual scavenging is, finally, a sanitation issue and, more importantly, a health issue.

Unfortunately, government and municipal authorities tend to ignore sanitation because it does not bring the voters’ wrath upon their heads as urgently as, say, water and power supply. It takes a plague, as it did in Surat, to make them sit up and smell the sewage.

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