When it comes to population, India is a nation of numbers.
About 1.4 million Indians work in the railway sector. Railways, as we all know, is the heart and soul of transportation in the country. At the same time, it causes the problems of sanitation and manual scavenging.
While an Act to prohibit manual scavenging in the country is in place, the reality is quite different.
According to the Census in 2011, India has a recorded 1,80,657 manual scavengers who are cleaning 9.6 million dry latrines. That number alone should signify the gravity and enormity of the issue.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits the employment of any person for the task of manual scavenging by any agency or individual. As picking up untreated human excreta is harmful to one’s health and hygiene, the Act seeks to completely ban manual scavenging.
However, the statistics shown in the table indicates that even after the enforcement of the act in 2013, the number of manual scavengers is quite high. The Act further states that if someone breaks this law then he or she can be punished by a two-year prison sentence, or a fine of up to ₹2 lakh, or both.
However, the law itself is filled with contradictions and faulty provisions.
The first loophole that should be pointed out is in part 2(1)(e) of the Act: “’Insanitary latrine’ means a latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either in situ, or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed: Provided that a water flush latrine in a railway passenger coach, when cleaned by an employee with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be an insanitary latrine.”
The irony here is the fact that government-run Indian Railways is responsible for the maximum number of manual scavengers in the country.
Also another loophole is the mention of the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ throughout the Act. This term, according to the official definition, only concerns Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. The definition excludes Dalit women from Muslim and Christian communities.
On the other hand, it is estimated that 1.3 million Dalits, especially women, are employed in manual scavenging. Therefore, not only is manual scavenging a legally prohibited occupation, it also breeds high levels of social discrimination and exploitation.
Part 2(1)(d) of the Act contains another major loophole: “‘hazardous cleaning’ by an employee, in relation to a sewer or septic tank, means its manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligations to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions, as may be prescribed or provided in any other law, for the time being in force or rules made thereunder”.
When it comes to preventing manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, this provision is in itself a major barrier. It seeks to ‘legalise’ manual scavenging under the garb of ‘protective gears’. However, the Act does not specify what constitutes a ‘protective gear’. This is a loophole that is frequently exploited by those employing manual scavengers.
Furthermore, there is a clear lack of implementation of part 4(2) of the Act which states: “Without prejudice to the provisions contained in sub-section (1), Municipalities, Cantonment Boards and railway authorities shall also construct adequate number of sanitary community latrines, within such period not exceeding three years from the date of commencement of this Act, as the appropriate Government may, by notification, specify, so as to eliminate the practice of open defecation in their jurisdiction.”
We are already into the fourth year of the implementation of the Act. However, according to the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a Delhi-based organisation which has been fighting for the manual scavengers for over two decades now, there have been 1,268 recorded deaths of manual scavengers while cleaning open sewers in the past two years.
Despite the Act’s provisions, municipal corporations hire private contractors to employ scavengers to clean open sewers with their hands and broom. ‘Protective gears’ which legalise scavenging are often not provided. Also according to the 2014 Human Rights Watch Report on manual scavenging, the government has, till 2014, extended the time limit to end manual scavenging eight times.
Evidently, not much has changed since the implementation of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, to the one enacted in 2013. Besides, even though the Act mentions the word rehabilitation several times, not much is provided for. Nowhere does the Act ensure financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood and other similar provisions.
After all, whose fault is it that this mess has persisted for over twenty years now? The ones who created it in the first place, or the ones who are having to continuously clean it up?