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All That’s Wrong With The ‘Error’ The Govt. Made In Offering Manual Scavenging As A Job

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By Abhishek Jha

The National Career Services portal launched by the Prime Minister ran into controversy a couple of days ago when it was found that it had listed jobs with definitions that seemed to promote manual scavenging. The Ministry of Labour and Employment has subsequently apologised unconditionally and the option removed from the website. A “Sweeper, Sewer” was supposed to use bamboo or iron rod for cleaning sewage systems and hand the debris using a spade and bucket to “helper outside manhole“, a report in The Hindu said. A “Sweeper, Wet” was supposed to clean “night soil using spade and broom“.

MANUAL_SCAVENGING_1323873g
Bezwada Wilson, the national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), has been fighting the battle against this evil practice for more than a decade now and has often narrated the ordeal of getting governments to even acknowledge that manual scavenging exists and is often promoted by offices and institutions of the government itself. Once, the SKA found a dry latrine even inside the Nizamabad court complex in Hyderabad. When they started demolishing the dry latrines, they were prevented from doing so. “In response to which we said that when the government denies the existence of these dry latrines, how could we be demolishing them? This way we forced governments to act,” he said of his ordeal and his radical solution in 2010.

Although an apology has been made, the error in listing this practice as a job opening exposes how manual scavenging remains an unacknowledged error in the country.

What The Laws Provide:

The 1993 Act for prohibition of employment of manual scavengers had loose definitions. The Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, therefore, states in a more clear definition that a manual scavenger is anybody who is employed and engaged “for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed.” Engagement and employment of “any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank” is also prohibited, where hazardous cleaning implies cleaning without protective gear and without observance of security precautions. In a report submitted to The Working Group on the “Empowerment of Scheduled Castes (SCs)” for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-2012), the sub group on Safai Karamcharis had also suggested that necessary “safety gears and equipment” be provided to those engaged in sanitation work to “conduct their work in a dignified manner“. Similarly, it had proposed that the Government “form a study group to understand the latest technologies in sanitation systems in vogue in developed countries” to “eliminate the need for workers to enter sewers.

What Actually Goes On:

The use of bamboo or iron rod, spade and bucket seems so far from any protective gear mandated by the 2013 Act. The descriptions listed on the website clearly imply that someone has to enter the manhole. If this is the set of skills that are to be promoted, the Prime Minister seems to be far from his promise of eliminating manual scavenging. But this effective promotion of manual scavenging, by ignoring its own definitions and laws, is not unique to this government. It just might have come to light because of the high-tech manner in which the job was being promoted.

maitri dore manual scavenging
The inhuman task of human waste collection. Illustration by Maitri Dore

Although Narendra Modi’s promise of sanitary toilets may help in the removal of insanitary latrines, the rehabilitation of those engaged in manual scavenging would still remain a problem. This is because this inhuman practice has been imposed for thousand years on people from a certain Dalit sub-caste only. The website of SKA states that 82% of these are women. Thus, although provisions exist in the law for rehabilitation, the practice would persist until the interlinked fundamental problems of casteism and patriarchy remain. It is not surprising to learn then that according to the 2011 census 13,14,828 latrines exist where night soil is disposed into the open drain and 7,95,252 where it is removed by humans. The least we expect is that governments don’t polish and sell the status quo as dignified.

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