Will Manual Scavengers be Liberated and Rehabilitated? [Part 2]

Posted on June 7, 2012 in Society

By Dr. Amrit Patel:

Part 2 of a three part series on liberation of manual scavengers.

Unenforced Law: The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, aimed at addressing the issue of manual scavenging in larger perspectives, but the Government failed to enforce the law for over 18 years, as a result of which tens of thousands of people still continue to be engaged in manual scavenging. Most of the manual scavengers belong to SCs or STs, and in 2011 the Union Ministry of Home Affairs directed all States that engaging or employing a member of SCs or STs in manual scavenging may fall within the ambit of the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. However, the fact is that there has been yet not a single person convicted under the 1993 law for engaging a person in manual scavenging although many States confirmed the prevalence of manual scavenging. In 2012 a report on “Stigmatization of Dalits in accessing water and sanitation in India” was presented to the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. The report includes observations on the human rights situation of manual scavengers working in India. An abstract of the report was also presented at a Public Consultation in the UN.

New Law: On June 17, 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to manual scavenging as “one of the darkest blots on (India’s) development process” and asked all State Ministers in the country to pledge to eliminate this scourge from every corner of India in the next six months, by the end of 2011. Government was duty-bound to enact a new comprehensive law for total emancipation of sanitary workers involved in all forms of manual scavenging, sewerage cleaning and septic tank cleaning within a time frame. The Tamil Nadu Assembly on September 10, 2011, acknowledging the fact that old law is too weak and needs to be replaced with a new central law binding all State legislatures, was prompt to pass a unanimous resolution urging the Union of India to enact suitable amendments to the 1993 Act by modifying certain clauses to make it comprehensive and unambiguous, inter alia, the scope of definition of manual scavenger, appointment of implementing authorities, power of executing authority to prevent environment pollution. The law must strengthen public accountability mechanisms and shift the focus to human dignity from mere sanitation.

On March 12, 2012 Ms Pratibha Patil, the President of India, while addressing the Parliament promised for social justice and said,  that her Government would introduce a new Bill in the Parliament for eliminating manual scavenging and insanitary latrines. This would also provide for proper rehabilitation of manual scavengers in alternative occupations so that they were able to lead a life of dignity. A similar commitment was made to the Supreme Court four days later. The bill is now proposed to be introduced in the monsoon session of the Parliament, which has also come only after the matter was brought before the Supreme Court following an order of the Madras High Court that the personal appearance of high dignitaries, including those in the Prime Minister’s Office, might be required if the Center failed to amend the law.

Rehabilitation Scheme: In 1993, the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis was set up under the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis Act. The National Scheme was launched in March 1993 for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependents and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment was directed to implement it. However, according to the CAG report, the scheme failed to achieve its objectives despite an investment of more than Rs. 600 crore. The preamble of the report itself said “The Scheme was undoubtedly well-intentioned but ill-conceived as it failed to harness its operational parameters to the complex structure of a highly stratified society resisting occupational reform. Nobility of purpose was not enough, as the scheme failed to deliver its social vision after ten years of continuous but regrettably half-hearted efforts. It failed in working out a coherent strategy for policy initiatives as it could not take advantage of an existing Law that prohibited employment of Scavengers. Divorcing liberation from rehabilitation was an error of judgment that weakened the foundation of the Scheme and led to uncoordinated efforts without focus. It failed in enhancing or re-orienting the skill-levels of the beneficiaries necessary for change of occupation. For the same reason, it failed in its mission of replacing the hereditary practice by skill-based choice… It is the lack of purpose in aligning the parameters of the Scheme and lack of will in implementing it that led to the Scheme floundering on its own assumptions.” The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis attributes lack of commitment by the State Governments and concerned agencies accompanied by the state’s complicity in the whole process for unsatisfactory performance of the Scheme. Even State governments routinely deny the existence of manual scavengers. Many government offices and buildings still have dry latrines and municipalities employ manual scavengers to clean these latrines.

The CAG report faulted the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for delays in disbursing funds to the Scheduled Caste Development Financial Corporations (responsible for implementing income-generating rehabilitation schemes) and for having “hardly any workable monitoring machinery at the Ministry, State and District levels”. The Corporations and the banks failed to deliver as there was no clear definition of occupational change. The CAG reported 47% loan rejection in Maharashtra and 74% in Tamil Nadu. As the report perceptively pointed out, “to expect an illiterate and poor scavenger to comply with the rigours of project-financing by commercial banks, was, to say the least, unimaginative”. The CAG concluded that most serious flaw in the scheme was “its failure to employ the law that prohibited the occupation.” The CAG said “The State and Central schemes were expected to draw their strength from the law. However, the law was rarely used”.

Earlier programs for rehabilitation of released manual scavengers failed because an estimated 95% manual scavengers are women, whereas the majority of schemes are meant for man and beneficiaries, too, are men. Besides, it is observed that many scavengers are older women, with little or no education, skills and experience. For them schemes involving a bank loan and subsidy cannot serve the purpose of rehabilitation, leave alone lack of transparency, corruption, delay, uncertainty and harassment in availing subsidy and loan. Experiences suggest that schemes should be entirely grant-based, individual income generating plans must be supported by backward and forward linkages accompanied by capacity building training and counselling services.