“Arre, woh bhangi ka bachcha hai na,” (Hey, isn’t their parent a manual scavenger?) I overheard this while walking down the street, which made me think: are we still labelling people on the basis of caste?
As I asked people about it, they said, “Iska baap bhangi tha toh yeh bhi bhangi hua na.” (Their father was a manual scavenger by caste, so it makes them the same, doesn’t it?)
It made me curious because back in school, we were taught about the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth according to the Indian Constitution. However, the ground reality is the stark opposite. Here, we are talking about manual scavengers who perform the most terrifying and unhygienic work which is an assault on the pride, sense and honour of a person.
These manual labourers perform their jobs at very low wages for a few morsels of food in return for their service. The exact number of manual scavengers in this country is a hard guess because the practice is technically illegal, authorities are embarrassed and the exact number is hard to come by.
While walking down the street, I talked to Rashmi (name changed), also a manual scavenger, who said she ventured into scavenging when her mother became unable to perform the work due to her old age. She also narrated her sorry state of not being able to find another job in case she left her existing one.
I dug deeper and read about The Protection of Civil Rights Act, initially known as Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 and The Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 – the earliest legislation that made the practice of untouchability a cognizable and non-compoundable offence.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, formally prohibited the construction of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. Additionally, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993, was a welfare legislation passed to monitor the implementation of schemes for sanitation workers and also address their grievances.
However, it was only in 2013, when both houses of the Parliament unanimously passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act which outlawed the practice of manual scavenging completely. This was umbrella legislation that aimed to look at the issue holistically. PEMSR Act, 2013, prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, construction of dry latrines, and manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers without protective equipment.
We asked the workers whether they were aware of the PEMSR Act of 2013. Even though a few of them were aware of it, it wouldn’t help resolve their problems because of their mindset. They are still called Bhangi and other atrocious casteist names. Even today, they face the brunt of social exclusion.
Even after 74 years of independent India, there is one section of society that is still waiting to be independent.
Please note that this article is based purely on the interviews of people working as manual scavengers.