Print edition : May 31, 2013

A worker clears a choked drain at Anandnagar in Hyderabad, a file photograph. Despite an Act prohibiting the employment of scavengers, the practice is rampant in many parts of the country. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

At a protest on April 14 near Coimbatore Railway Junction, Tamil Nadu, opposing the prevalence of manual scavenging. Photo: S. SIVA SARAVANAN

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

The death of two workers in a sewage tank in Chennai revives the call for the eradication of manual scavenging.

THAT manual scavenging continues to be a national shame became evident once again when two Dalits died of asphyxiation while cleaning a sewage tank in a private hotel in Chennai in Tamil Nadu on April 20. Shekar (45) and Robert (47) were the latest casualties of the abhorrent system of workers entering drains to clear blocks manually. Between February 2011 and December 2012, 19 people have died in this manner in the State, 15 of them in the capital city alone.

The debasing occupation forced chiefly on Dalits through the generations prompted the Supreme Court recently to make stinging comments against the Union government for “not enacting a law that will ban manual scavenging”. (A number of public interest litigation (PIL) petitions on the issue are pending before various courts in the country besides two in the Supreme Court.)

On January 8, the Supreme Court expressed serious concern at the inordinate delay in passing the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, aimed at amending and replacing the existing Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which, activists say, remains just on paper.

“We are very much concerned about this issue of [manual scavenging],” the court observed. “They [manual scavengers] are marginalised and Parliament needs to take adequate steps to pass the Bill [introduced on September 3, 2012]. It had been over a year and [a] half that the Additional Solicitor General has been promising to do something,” the two-member Bench of Justices H. L. Datu and Ranjan Gogoi told Attorney General G. E. Vahanvati.

The Bench made these comments while hearing an appeal from the Centre challenging a Madras High Court order of 2011 on a PIL filed on manual scavenging by the Chennai-based social activist A. Narayanan. The High Court, which had banned manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu in 2008, issued a stern warning to the Centre that if it failed to amend the law to prevent manual scavenging, the court would be constrained to direct the personal appearance of any of the high dignitaries from either the Prime Minister’s Office Secretariat or other departments.

After getting a stay on it, the Centre, through its Attorney General, assured the court that it would take steps to make changes in the Bill to widen the scope of the definition of “manual scavenger”. The Attorney General also submitted that unlike the 1993 Act, the new Bill would be brought under Entry 97 of the Constitution which makes it binding on States and Union Territories to abide by it.

An Act ignored

“Not even a single prosecution anywhere in India has been initiated under the 1993 Act, which has been in existence for close to two decades. No police station has registered any FIR [first information report] under this law, which claims manual scavenging is illegal,” says Bezwada Wilson, founder and national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), which has been spearheading the movement against the scourge since the late 1980s.

Wilson’s claims are not unfounded. In the latest instance in Chennai, the city police registered a case against an employee of the hotel under Section 304 (a) (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code. In another recent incident, where three youths, including two migrant labourers from West Bengal, died of asphyxiation while repairing a sewer in Tiruvallur, 55 kilometres from Chennai, the police registered a case under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code.

“The irony here is that generally the police are not even aware of the existence of the 1993 Act on manual scavenging. They are also reluctant to invoke the provisions of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, though the victims mostly happen to be Dalits,” says T. Neethirajan, South Chennai district secretary of The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which is fighting for Dalits’ dignity and rights in Tamil Nadu.

Neethirajan says that the TNUEF has been urging law-enforcers to register cases under relevant laws whenever the death of a Dalit or a tribal person takes place in gutters. “Besides, the Home Ministry has also issued a communique to all States asking them to register cases under the S.C./S.T. Act in case a Dalit or a tribal person dies while doing manual scavenging,” he points out.

The SKA took the fight against manual scavenging to the Supreme Court in 2003 invoking Articles 21, 32 and 17 of the Constitution and demanding the eradication of the obnoxious practice and the rehabilitation of people involved in manual scavenging. There were 40 respondents in the case, including the Indian Railways, and the Defence and Industry department. The case is now before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Trains and toilets

Claiming that his fight against the practice in his native Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka in 1984 was one of the major factors that prompted the government to bring in the 1993 Act, Wilson says the government is reluctant to enforce the law strictly since the Railways has been the principal violator of it. “It operates 1.70 lakh passenger coaches with open-discharge toilets,” he says. However the Railways in its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court claimed that only 30,000 coaches had open-discharge toilets.

“Nearly two crore Indians use trains every day. Each [train] toilet is used about 250 times a day. These are open toilets, so scavenging is still prevalent on these railway tracks. We have started work on replacing 2,500 of them with bio-toilets. It will take another six to seven years to replace all,” Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh said at a meeting in New Delhi on December 11, 2012, where he tendered an apology for the prevalence of manual scavenging.

“The National Advisory Council, which met recently, was told that the Railways had so far converted 500 open toilets into bio-toilets. Just imagine the time the Railways will take to convert them all,” says Wilson. The Supreme Court has asked the Delhi High Court to monitor the Railways’ action on this issue.

The Railways is not the only offender. The provisions of the 1993 Act, which talks about “dry latrines” but not about septic tanks, manholes and so on have become a convenient tool for many States and Union Territories to deny the presence of manual scavenging. “They fudge details on dry latrines and manual scavenging and misguide even the judiciary on this issue of national discrimination,” Wilson claims.

But the 2011 Census, he points out, exposes the government’s claims on dry latrines. According to the Census data, 7,94,390 dry latrines are in active use in the country where human waste is cleaned and carried manually. Nearly 95 per cent of the 1.3 million scavengers are Dalits; of these 98 per cent are women. The inhuman practice is in vogue in 252 districts of the country.

Wilson is optimistic that Parliament will pass the Bill before May this year. It has been cleared by the Standing Committee of Social Justice and Empowerment.

“The Bill, placed by the Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, once it becomes a law, is expected to expand the ambit of manual scavenging to include people who clean drainages, manholes, septic tanks and sewers, besides evolving a rehabilitation package for them and their family members,” says Narayanan, whose writ petition prompted the Madras High Court to ban manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu.

Not satisfied with the measures taken by the State government on scavenging, he filed a petition for contempt of court. This prompted the court to ask the State and Union governments to amend the 1993 Act. Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, took a proactive step by passing a resolution in the Assembly urging the Centre to bring an amendment to the law in Parliament.

Narayanan says that modern tools should be used to clean sewers as is done in developed countries. “Direct human contact with the filth should be totally eradicated,” he demands. Apart from regular medical check-ups, he demands educational grants and subsidies for new ventures for those involved in manual scavenging.

In his view the formation of an autonomous National Sustainable Sanitation Science and Technology Research Institute or National Research Organisation in Sustainable Sanitation Science and Technology, with regional institutes, will help develop and promote “appropriate modern, sustainable and eco-friendly technology for eliminating the scourge of all forms of manual scavenging”.

The Bill and its provisions

The Bill, when it becomes law, Wilson hopes, will liberate manual scavengers. His movement has encouraged many safai karmachari women to throw out the baskets they used to carry human waste on their heads for a livelihood. “But there is no total rehabilitation. These women are stoically waiting for the government to reach out to them. The struggle goes on,” he says.

The proposed Bill has a few stringent provisions in it though many activists claim that it has been “watered down”. It makes the offences non-bailable. The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis will monitor its implementation. District Magistrates will be responsible for ensuring that there are no insanitary latrines in their jurisdictions. State monitoring panels will report to a Central monitoring committee. The financial implication for the proposed new law is expected to be around Rs.4,825 crore.

“Allowing them to handle filth for generations is a sin,” Narayanan says, pointing out that a strong political will is essential to eradicate the shameful practice. “Manual scavenging is in violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in Article 21 (right to life), Article 14 (equality before law), Article 17 (abolition of untouchability) and Article 23 (right against exploitation) and also to be read with Articles 38, 39 (e), 41, 42 and 46 of the Constitution,” he says.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on June 17, 2011, called it “one of the darkest blots on [India’s] development process….”

“Employing a person of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe as a manual scavenger to carry human excreta would be punishable under Section 3 of the S.C. and S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. [This] is a strong and prohibitive instrument in your hands. I urge you to make full use of this,” he told the people at a meeting on social justice in New Delhi.

According to P.S. Krishnan, former Secretary to the Ministry of Welfare and also the man behind important social legislation including the Special Component Plan for Scheduled Castes, 1978, Jairam Ramesh’s apology and the observations of the Prime Minister will “assuage the wounded feelings and lacerated psyche of the manual scavengers and of the communities which have been subjected to this inhuman indignity”. A formal expression of deep regret for the past and assurance by the state in a legislation “is necessary and extremely appropriate”, he says.

Liberated scavengers, says Krishnan, who played a leading role in drafing the new Bill, should not be replaced by others of the same communities. “It is better to cut the Gordian knot by accepting the claim of any person that he or she is a manual scavenger or has been a manual scavenger, provided that such person belongs to one of the communities that are known to be the main sources of manual scavenging labour,” he says.

Sanitation in this country, Krishnan insists, must be “humanised”.