India has been independent since 1947, but have all Indians got their independence?
India may have got its independence in 1947, but the caste system still prevails in our country. The caste system is so deeply ingrained in the minds of Indians that even after decades, we haven’t been able to overcome this discriminating and inhuman factor. Lower caste people in India have been treated as outcasts every time in nearly every field, time and again.
In the Rig Veda, not only has an interpretation of the origin of the caste system been provided, a divine classification of their functions and their positions in society have also been specified. The Purusha Suktam hymn in the Rig Veda describes the creation of living beings as per the four varnas (castes): Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. It states: “The Brahmin was his mouth; His two arms were made the Rajanya (Kshatriya); His thighs became the Vaisya; from his feet, the Shudra was produced.”
Therefore, upon the basis of the caste of the people, their occupations were decided. The people of the lowest caste were given all the menial jobs – which according to the upper caste people, were ‘polluting’, and hence, were not appropriate for their status. All the unclean and unhygienic tasks were done by the Shudras, who had no other choice but to work as manual scavengers or sweepers to sustain their lives.
Till date, many in India do not have right to choose their occupations. As it is, the working conditions are not favorable for maintaining hygiene. Moreover, under heavy debts, the lives of these manual scavengers become even worse. Also, they generally have no option of changing their occupation – because caste discrimination is glued to Indian society in a way that in most cases, being born in an upper caste family is the only thing that can guarantee you a better livelihood. Lower caste people have rarely had the right to develop or rise above such discrimination.
Manual scavenging in India has been related to the cruel and inhuman practice of untouchability.
Article 17, which comes under Part III of the Indian Constitution, deals with the abolition of untouchability. But not much has been implemented.
According to The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, hiring or employing an individual for cleaning and carrying human excreta was prohibited. The construction of latrines without proper drainage and sewage systems, and the maintenance of dry latrines by manual scavengers were also prohibited.
In 2013, a new and significant legislation was brought into force. This legislation was a modified form of the Manual Scavengers Act, which was brought to stress upon banning manual scavenging, prohibiting all forms of it and to emphasise the rehabilitation of manual scavengers after carrying out necessary surveys.
The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act was introduced on September 19, 2013. As per this Act, the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers as well as their families was much needed. These steps would help in ensuring the dignity of the individual, which is enshrined as one of the goals in the Preamble to the Constitution.
Also, the right to live with dignity is implicit in the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution. Article 46 of the Constitution, on the other hand, provides that the State shall protect the weaker sections – particularly, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes – from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
However, the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, arising from the continued existence of insanitary latrines and a highly iniquitous caste system, still persists in various parts of the country. The existing laws have not proved adequate in eliminating the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging in India.
Introducing certain laws and regulations should not be the only task of various authorities and regulatory bodies. The implementation of these laws and provisions should be ensured by appointing people who can make sure that these are being followed, and that anybody who does not follow the rules and regulations is punished.
Bindeshwar Pathak in his work, “Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India“, states that the entire process of the liberation of scavengers includes not just talks about value conflicts or rehabilitation and the few changes in their means of livelihood. The liberation of these people is also closely associated with the change in their social status and the ‘mould’ of their social relationships.
All these aspects of liberation can be achieved only when dry latrines are not used at all. According to Pathak, Sulabh Shauchalayas can serve the purpose – and can also make conditions better for manual scavengers, whereby there will be no need to remove human excreta with bare hands.
As per researches and reports, there is a lack of proper working conditions and equipment and tools for manual scavengers in India. With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, though many dry latrines have been replaced with sanitary toilets in India, the employment of manual scavengers has still not decreased in various states of India. These toilets still have to be cleaned and made useable by people from lower castes. However, their job description is not defined, even though it’s essentially manual scavenging. Septic tanks are also cleaned by manual scavengers, without proper tools and help.
Every citizen has the right to life, liberty and security. Then, why are some people denied these fundamental rights?
In this year, more than 100 people, who were employed as manual scavengers, have died – either due to suffocation or other accidents occurring while cleaning human wastes or sewage tanks. Immediate actions need to be taken. After all, it’s completely inhuman to let people die by forcing them to be a part of a job, which is not only unhygienic but also proves to be lethal and underpaid.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network works globally against any kind of discrimination based on caste. It issued a report according to which manual scavenging, cleaning of dry latrines, cleaning sewage and many more activities are occupational forms of slavery to which Dalits are being exposed. According to this report (issued in 2015), over 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, sustain their livelihood by working as manual scavengers. Nearly all of the manual scavengers are underpaid – and at times, are given only ₹1 for working all day long, as a result of which they have to borrow money from upper caste people who often charge interest when lending money.
Ashif Sheikh, founder of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots-level campaign against manual scavenging, also considers manual scavenging to be a form of slavery. He stated that appointing someone to clean human waste should not be called employment because it’s inhuman and equivalent to slavery.
Bezwada Wilson wanted to eradicate discrimination on the basis of birth. So, in 1993, he led a nationwide movement, the Safai Karmachari Andolan, by bringing together Dalit activists. For the movement, he filed a PIL in the Supreme Court (SC), listing nationwide violators of the 1993 Prohibition Act. According to Wilson, “Manual scavenging is a blot on humanity, and if you engage in it, it is a crime you commit on yourself. So, don’t wait for the government, break free.”
Many more organisations, groups and individuals are fighting for the rights of manual scavengers and for the people who have been forced to do menial jobs. But, these will persist until strict punishments are not enforced upon the culprits who do not value the right to life and consider other humans inferior based on their family names or castes.
People who care for the lives of other humans should join hands and help manual scavengers to get out of such slavery. Rewards should be given to the ones who report the people who are employing others as manual scavengers. Additionally, harsh punishments should be meted out to those who promote manual scavenging, even if the people involved are government officials at the local or national level. Manual scavengers should also be encouraged to raise their voices against the injustice they are being exposed to.