Ashif Shaikh was selected for the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016. But such recognition was not always the case in his life. Born into a Dalit Muslim family, Shaikh faced discrimination both, in Madrasas and schools. However, by the time he was 17 he was already organising students to fight caste discrimination and violence. In the year 2000, he founded Jan Sahas, an organisation to continue this work on a larger scale. A key focus area of Shaikh’s work has been the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, a majority of whom are women. In a telephonic interview with YKA, Shaikh talks about this process as well as the access (or lack thereof) that sanitation workers and manual scavengers, have to sanitation themselves. Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): Can you tell me a little about your project “Dignity and Design”?
Ashif Shaikh (AS): Let me give you a little context for the kind of work that we do. We run a campaign called Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, and our basic work is to free the women who are employed in the work of manual scavenging. We started this campaign nearly 14-15 years ago and by now we have helped more than 24,000 women in getting out of this practice.
For rehabilitation, we had to do various kinds of work. For instance, in 2012-13 we did a 10,000 km long yatra called the Maila Mukti Yatra, through which we raised a number of issues with the government. After the Yatra, the first thing that happened was that in September 2013, a new law came into effect, in which the government incorporated a lot of our recommendations for rehabilitation. For instance, an immediate support of 40,000 INR will be awarded during the rehabilitation process (Manual scavengers, one from each family, are eligible for receiving cash assistance of Rs. 40,000 to give up manual scavenging, immediately after being identified by the municipality, the municipal corporation, or panchayat).
At that time, since Minister of Rural Development Shri Jairam Ramesh was involved a lot in the process, the government ran several pilots under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission programme. A pilot that we did was called Dignity and Design, in which we basically trained (we still do) the women liberated from manual scavenging and promote them as entrepreneurs. The project is focussed in Madhya Pradesh right now but it is expanding into Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
AJ: Why did you feel the need to focus on women?
AS: Because in practice, in the case of dry toilets, about 95 to 98 percent manual scavengers are women.
AJ: What kind of support is provided to the women? And can you share any stories of the women who take up these enterprises?
AS: Basically two to three types of work are taken up: garment manufacturing, the manufacturing of incense sticks in Ujjain, as well as spices. For instance, Tasleen ji, who was from the Dalit Muslim community, used to be a manual scavenger for 15 years in Ujjain. She left it and took up the work of manufacturing incense sticks, and also underwent training on how to manage the incense-sticks factory. Supported by Jan Sahas, Tasleen ji, along with other women started a group of their own. Tasleen ji now manages the centre while 30 women work as daily wagers. All of them were manual scavengers.
AJ: The laws have provisions for rehabilitation of manual scavenging. If that is the case, why did you still need to make efforts?
AS: The ’93 Act did not have any provision for rehabilitation. Secondly, the implementation of that Act was under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA). There is a lot of difference in the work of MHUPA and the issue of manual scavenging. So, there were a lot of loopholes like this in the Act. For instance, the identification process wasn’t shown properly. It was not clear how liberation was to happen. The focus was on dry toilets and not on individuals involved in the practice, and rehabilitation wasn’t talked about much.
AJ: What do you think of the Swachh Bharat Mission, and other sanitation programmes that preceded it?
AS: The limitation is that they are not comprehensive. Within one of the largest government institutions – the Railways – manual scavenging takes place. There are more than 4 lakh dry toilets within the railway coaches, and to get them cleaned, the government itself has to hire people who go and do the cleaning work. When there is a problem within your institution, how can you expect that people will pay attention to sanitation? This is a contradiction.
Second, there is a denial. Even today many states say that there are no dry toilets or manual scavenging in their state. Maharashtra, for instance, has been saying this for years on end but when the caste and economic census took place, it turned out that nearly 50,000 people in Maharashtra are working as manual scavengers. If you look at it from the point of census, there were 26 lakh dry toilets that were there, although the number is underreported. If you don’t want to talk about the issue, how can you find a concrete solution for it?
AJ: What kind of access do safai karamcharis and manual scavengers themselves have to sanitation and water?
AS: Across the country, from Kerala to Uttar Pradesh, the Dalit colony is separate from the village. The manual scavengers among the Dalits are even more marginalised and this is a phenomenon in the entire country. Dalits will be where there is a cremation ground or burial ground. On the other hand, the village’s development initiatives, basic facilities, government provisions – like the school, Anganwadi, hospital, police station, etc – are provided in the middle of the village. So they don’t have as much access as those living in the centre of the village.
Here is a small example: they clean the entire village but don’t have a drain in their own locality. Why aren’t there drains? Because drains are built in the ‘main village’ and they live in a separate locality. So, these localities are completely excluded from the village. The result of this exclusion is that they are not able to benefit from the village’s development.
AJ: Despite all the problems, what changes have you seen due to your work?
AS: Our focus is on ending manual scavenging and dry toilets but our approach is to focus on the people who are involved in this work. The Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers – we tried to measure its impact and the problems with its implementation. We try to support, too. Right now around 10,000 people across the country, and especially in Uttar Pradesh and nearby areas, have been given the 40,000 immediate relief provided by the government.
Also, over 24,000 women used to work in more than 5 lakh dry toilets (these include community toilets). The toilets are not there now. As for the women, over 24,000 of them have come out of it, and on a big scale, they have been rehabilitated. We have seen that wherever women have come out of this practice, this change has come.