Will Manual Scavengers be Liberated and Rehabilitated? [Part 1]

Posted on June 7, 2012 in Society

By Dr. Amrit Patel:

Part 1 of a three part series on liberation of manual scavengers.

India will shortly celebrate the 65th Anniversary of our Independence. However, even after more than precious six decades since Independence, it is a matter of national shame that thousands of scavenger families still live a socially degrading and inhuman life in the Twenty-first century. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, struggled throughout his life to ameliorate the working and living conditions of this section of society and to restore to them their lost human dignity.

Manual Scavenging: India, the largest democracy in the world, has achieved a remarkable economic growth during the first decade of this century and for millions of people India has become a land of opportunities and destination for foreign investments. However, many are still left behind due to deep rooted caste-based discrimination in all walks of life. These are the people who have been discriminated and subjugated for centuries into manual scavenging– heinous/undignified work– and the society treats them as “dirty and only meant for dirty work such as manual scavenging”. Manual scavenging has its roots in the social ills emanating from the centuries-old caste system and because of the tag “Manual Scavengers” other people do not hire them for any other jobs except the one that their ancestors were doing for thousands of years and they are denied their rightful promising opportunities of dignified work.

This perpetual severe discrimination along with the indifferent attitude of law enforcing authorities accompanied by the inadequacies in the existing law to wipe out the practice has been the reason for their continuing as manual scavengers. Manual scavenging anywhere in the world is a dehumanizing practice and the most degrading surviving practice of untouchability. In India it is looked as an issue of sanitation rather than human dignity which constitution guarantees all citizens. Besides social atrocities that scavengers face, they are exposed to several health problems by virtue of their occupation.

According to Shree Narayanan’s Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court, the hazards, inter alia, include exposure to harmful gases such as methane and hydrogen sulphide leading to instant death and/or cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorder like osteoarthritis changes and intervertebral disc herniation, infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters.

Law of 1993: The manual scavenging has long been acknowledged as an offensive and inhuman practice in civilized society. In 1917, Mahatma Gandhi had insisted that the inmates of Sabarmati Ashram, which he had set up and was run like a commune, clean their toilets themselves. The Maharashtra Harijan Sevak Sangh, in 1948 protested against the practice of manual scavenging and called for its abolition. The Barve Committee [1949] made pointed recommendations to improve the working conditions of the sanitary workers. In 1957, the Scavenging Conditions Enquiry Committee recommended the abolition of the practice of carrying human excreta in head-loads. In 1968, the National Commission on Labour appointed a committee to study the working conditions of “sweepers and scavengers”. All these Committees recommended the abolition of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of sanitary workers, or safai karmacharis.

With partial acceptance of recommendations of these committees the country legislated the “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993” which [i] prohibits the employment of manual scavengers or construction of dry latrines not connected to proper drainage channels and [ii] violations of provisions of this Act can lead to imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of up to Rs.2000. However, according to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India [2003] as on 2003, only 16 States have adopted the law and none of the States had enforced it. Only six States have implemented the Employees Compensation Act of the Ministry of Labor.

The Tenth Five Year Plan [2002-07] had reiterated to eradicate manual scavenging by 2007 as a goal. Despite this, according to a petition filed in the Supreme Court, the Indian Railways, which actually employs manual scavengers, in its Integrated Railways Modernization Plan of Rs.2,40,000 crore did not even provide for the elimination of manual scavenging. The National Human Rights Commission, which had also called upon states to adopt and implement the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 noted dismal political response. Non-violent battles against untouchability voicing concern and anger was flashed country-wide by media showing women and young people burning baskets in which scavengers carried human waste on their heads, and demolishing dry latrines. In Courts, they insisted public officials including the Prime Minister to account for failing to enforce the law to end forever this humiliating tradition.

In January 2005, the Supreme Court, hearing a petition filed in 2003 by the Safai Karmachari Andolan and 13 other organizations and individuals, observed that the number of manual scavengers in India has increased and directed every Department/Ministry of the Union government and the State governments to file an affidavit through a senior officer, who would take personal responsibility for verifying the facts stated in the affidavit, within six months. If manual scavenging is admitted to exist in a given department, a time bound program for the liberation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers should be indicated.