Struggle in progress

Published : Jul 03, 2009 00:00 IST

A protest in Hyderabad on February 20 demanding, among other things, the rehabilitation of families of those working as scavengers and the demolition of dry latrines.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

A protest in Hyderabad on February 20 demanding, among other things, the rehabilitation of families of those working as scavengers and the demolition of dry latrines.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

WHEN a few young South Indian Dalit men and women, out of anger and anguish, set out in 1986 to run a campaign against manual scavenging, it was a long journey of continuous struggle that awaited them. All of them had faced discrimination, socially and economically, because they belonged to families of traditional scavengers people who clean human excreta manually and were considered the lowest even among untouchables. What started as a small effort to eradicate the obnoxious practice has, today, metamorphosed into an all-India movement known as the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA). It achieved a significant milestone when the Supreme Court, hearing a petition from it on April 30 and May 8, decided to hold District Collectors accountable for any existence of manual scavenging, which is banned (see also Indias shame, Frontline, September 22, 2006).

In its petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2009, the SKA compiled photographic evidence of the existence of manual scavenging and dry latrines in Punjab, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Haryana. On their part, the State governments, after repeated denial of the practice, agreed to carry out independent surveys with the SKA to locate dry latrines. Following the survey, the State governments sought another six months to rehabilitate the scavengers. The Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices Arijit Pasayat and P. Sathasivam gave them six weeks instead on the grounds that the State governments had had more than six years to destroy dry latrines in their States. The courts reference was to the public interest petition it heard in 2003 demanding the abolition of the practice.

The petition, filed by the SKA and a few other organisations, had emphasised that manual scavenging still existed in many States and even in public sector undertakings, the chief violator being the Railways. The petitioners sought enforcement of their fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 17 (right against untouchability) and Articles 14, 19 and 21, which guarantee equality, freedom, and protection of life and personal liberty respectively.

Manual scavenging is banned under The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, but has hardly been eradicated owing to the failure of the governments at the Centre and in the States to implement the Act.

The SKA was instrumental in getting the Bill passed in Parliament in 1993, during the term of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government. Its advocacy of the same had started during the V.P. Singh government, which first recognised the need for such an Act.

However, the Centre took four years to notify the Act, and State governments took three more years to adopt it. Even after the Act came into force in many States by 2001, there has not been a significant decline in the number of dry latrines or of those engaged in manual scavenging.

Ironically, the SKA and a few other organisations informed the Supreme Court in 2005, when it heard petitions seeking the enforcement of the Act, that the number of manual scavengers had risen to 7.87 lakhs in 2002 from 5.88 lakhs in 1992. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, however, puts the number of manual scavengers in 2002-03 at 6.76 lakhs.

An independent survey by the SKA states that 13 lakh people in India are engaged in the cleaning of other peoples excreta, though it agrees that since 2005 the number has been declining owing to the concerted efforts of the SKA and other organisations working in this area.

Holding District Collectors accountable is an important decision. In the past decade or so, it was the responsibility of the Secretaries of various departments, based in the State capitals, to ensure the enforcement of the ban on manual scavenging. But misinformation from the districts led them to either deny the existence of the practice or severely misconstrue the actual figures.

Says Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the SKA: This decision will not only let us point out cases in individual districts but also help us evaluate each Collectors performance. For example, in Rajasthan and Haryana, immediately after the decision, we saw orders from Collectors to destroy many dry latrines and to book dry-latrine owners under the law.

The Supreme Court at its next hearing of the case will take up the cases of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two most important States as far as the numbers of manual scavengers are concerned. While both States have denied the existence of the practice, the SKAs 2009 petition cites cases of people in these States carrying human excreta. The SKA says these two States account for the most number of manual scavengers and dry latrines in the country.

The SKA operates through 252 community resource persons and 80 full-time workers in 605 districts. Wilson says that most of their workers are from the community itself. They report cases on a daily basis from their regions and also try to dissuade scavengers from doing it. All these efforts are part of the Action 2010 plan of the SKA. The SKA organised a dharna on November 30, 2007, in New Delhi, followed by a national consultation the next day when Action 2010 was launched to eliminate manual scavenging through an intensive three-year campaign. Since the campaign coincides with the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the SKA decided to boycott the Games and to ask the international community not to participate in the Games as such an abhorrent practice still exists in India. A week-long Awareness Yatra in all the States will converge in New Delhi before the Games begin. Around eight lakh people are expected to participate in the yatra and demonstrations in various places of Delhi.

As a part of the plan, a national summit was held on February 25, 2009, in New Delhi, where State conveners of the SKA charted the next course of action. An important part of the campaign involves cities, where the number of dry latrines is increasing because of large-scale migration as a result of unbridled urbanisation.

In its activities in the past decade, the SKA had to face hostility from governments. But the most difficult part perhaps was to convince the safai karamcharis to give up their traditional job.

Says Wilson: Our biggest achievement has been to convince people in our community to leave manual scavenging. The people were sceptical as they knew that they would get no support from society if they left their jobs. They did not have the assurance of government support nor were they confident enough to do something else.

In the absence of a strong labour movement in the country, the SKA is gradually proving to be a great motivator for Dalits to unite and raise their voice against the historical oppression that they have faced in the name of their jobs, which society calls work.

Says Wilson: We dont perceive manual scavenging as work. It is a question of dignity. None of the civilisations I know has allotted such tasks as cleaning other peoples excreta to a particular community, as is prevalent in India. Our effort is to fight not just manual scavenging but also the casteist mindset of Indian society. For example, in one of our surveys with the Haryana government, the official clerks reported that though they found many people engaged in cleaning, none of them carried human excreta on their head. What does this mean? As if they are expected to carry excreta on their head? Will any upper-caste Hindu clean other peoples excreta ever, even in the poorest of conditions?

The SKA had to contest not only caste equations but also the patriarchal tendencies of the community itself. Ninety per cent of the dry-latrine cleaners are women. These women are ridiculed by their own families, but it is satisfying to see that the same women are the most forthcoming in pledging [support for struggles] against their conditions of work, says Wilson.

However, the biggest challenge the movement faces is the proper rehabilitation of scavengers. Though the 1993 Act promises to rehabilitate them, hardly anything has been done until now. Meira Kumar as Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment in the previous government had allotted Rs.50,000 to Rs.5 lakh to families of manual scavengers under the rehabilitation and self-employment scheme for them. A nodal agency National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation has been put in place but until recently it excused itself because of lack of funds.

Wilson says that at present there are no people working as manual scavengers (according to the definition of the 1993 Act) in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, he says, the governments have been strict in enforcing the law after the Supreme Court order. But since the dry latrines have not been destroyed even now, these States cannot be called manual-scavenging-free. So, the SKAs priority in these States is to get the dry latrines destroyed and to rehabilitate the erstwhile manual scavengers.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) observed in a report in 2003 that the National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependants, launched in 1992, had failed to achieve its objectives. The CAG found that much of the allotted funds were either unspent or underutilised.

Says Wilson: States like Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar would need a lot of attention before the abhorrent practice is eradicated. Only Haryana in North India has shown considerable improvement.

According to Wilson, under the Act the definition of safai karamcharis is limited to manual scavengers, but government sources use the term to represent all people who are engaged in any kind of cleaning work. This, he says, not only dilutes the cause of eradication of manual scavenging but also lets the government justify its inefficiency. All this and much more have been detailed in the Planning Commissions report on safai karamcharis, written by a subgroup headed by Wilson himself.

The SKA has surely brought about a change in the situation of the safai karamcharis, but the movement has a long way to go. Says Wilson: I, like many others in my community, used to hide my identity when I was a child. But today, the people, especially women, in the community are coming forward as leaders of the movement and using their identity to bring about a change in their lives. They are leaving their jobs voluntarily, which I had never imagined at the start of the movement. This is our biggest political achievement.

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