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India’s New ‘Prohibition Of Manual Scavenging Bill’ Fails To Tackle Core Issues, Yet Again

This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Can you imagine what drowning must feel like? Water gushes in through your nose and mouth. Your body is moving vigorously as you try to catch a breath. Now imagine if this was not water but a thick sludge of waste in a sewer. That liquid filth and toxic fumes entering your mouth and nose, while you gasp for breath. Not a very good way to die. Hard to even imagine, isn’t it?

This, however, is the plight of several sanitation workers who have died cleaning the sewers and septic tanks across India. An RTI filed by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) revealed that in 2019 alone, 115 people have died cleaning sewers and septic tanks. A total of 631 in the past decade. 631 preventable deaths.

Since independence, efforts have been made to eliminate this practice and improve the conditions of the sanitation workers. Several committees studied the plight of the manual scavengers – Barve Committee, Kaka Kalelkar Commission, Pandya Committee. They made long lists of recommendations. Different regimes made different laws and schemes. However, none of these laws has been able to prevent the deaths of the manual scavengers.

Caste, Cleanliness, Culture: The 3 Cs That Influence Manual Scavenging
Representational image.

Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020

One such law is the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The Act prohibited the employment of manual scavengers, promised them rehabilitation and alternate employment. It made the construction of insanitary latrines an offence. Also demanded the demolishing of all such latrines.

The Act also made provisions for financial assistance, concessional loans, and cash assistance. Offences under the Act are punishable with imprisonment of up to 5 years or a fine anywhere between Rs.50,000 to Rs. 5 lakh.

This year the government planned to propose amendments to this Act. The short monsoon session of the Parliament was to introduce the bill. This 2020 bill sought complete mechanization of sewer cleaning, better protection at work, and compensation in case of accidents. It also proposes to make the law more stringent by increasing the terms of imprisonment and fines. This bill is part of the Ministry of Social Justice’s National Action Plan aiming to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging.

Failures Of The Bill

The 2020 bill brings nothing new to the table. It makes the same old promises. Mechanization of sewer cleaning has been recommended since the 1956 – Kaka Kalelkar Commission. The need to improve the living and work conditions of the manual scavengers was underlined by the Barve Committee in 1949. In 2020, we are still discussing it.

We talk about the safety gear and equipment for manual scavengers when we should be finding ways to not let them enter these toxic sewers at all.

Today’s India is planning to send men to the moon. And somehow we do not have a defined course of action to mechanize the cleaning of our sewers. It then becomes evident that there is no lack of technology but a lack of will in alleviating the miseries of the manual scavengers.

The definition of manual scavengers is also very narrow. The 2013 Act defines them as persons engaged in manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, handling human excreta in unsanitary latrines or open-drain pits or on railway tracks or such other premises. This definition needs to be widened. Other sanitation workers such as bio-medical waste handlers, the garbage collecting staff, and toilet cleaning staff in domestic, public, and private set up, rag pickers, workers cleaning septic tanks and so on also need to be brought under its ambit.

The other aspect the bill fails on is addressing the caste angle. It is well established that most of the manual scavengers come from Dalit communities. The Human Rights Watch Report, 2014 does a very good job in highlighting how Dalits are disproportionately affected because of the continuing practice of manual scavenging. This practice ‘reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination’, says the report.

The children of these Dalit men and women are also pushed into this occupation, given the lack of support for their education. They face discrimination, social exclusion, humiliation, and harassment. Even violence if they refuse to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Dalit women face double discrimination on account of their caste as well as gender. According to an EPW report, of the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, about 95% to 98% are women. The 2020 bill does nothing for the welfare of these women and their children. Does complete mechanization assure that the Dalits will not be pushed into this occupation? Or will we then hand over the machines to them and ask them to continue to stay at the bottom of the ladder?

According to an EPW report, of the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, about 95% to 98% are women. Representational image.

What Is The Way Forward?

Before introducing the bill, the government must reanalyze the failures of the existing schemes and laws. The reports and recommendations by various committees and rights organizations need to be reconsidered. Only making stricter punitive provisions will not help if the implementation is lackadaisical.

It is crucial that all stakeholders – the state, concerned ministries, NGOs, pressure groups, and especially the people from the communities – are included in the policy processes from formulation to execution. A decentralized, bottom-up approach in policy-making must be adopted. The central and state governments must cooperate to eliminate this social ill root and branch. The third tier of governance – the local self-government bodies – must also participate on an equal footing.

Mechanization and better protective gear are just part of the solution. The ultimate solution should be to provide the communities engaged in manual scavenging with better education and employment opportunities. Encourage skill development and entrepreneurship among them.

Lastly, spreading awareness among citizens will go a long way. People must be told of the ill effects it has on Dalit communities in particular and the Indian society in general.

The Constitution entitles each one of us a life of dignity. Let’s make sure that the most vulnerable sections of our society are ensured of this life of dignity.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

This post is part of theJaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writers' Training Program, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more and apply.

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  1. Rangareddy Ruchitha

    There are some people at least who are able to think about the manual scavengers. Many people take them as granted and in turn call them untouchables. I have witnessed many situations right from my childhood where they were told to clean the septic tanks in a very rude manner in a disrespectful way.
    Keeping the social stigma aside they are prone to high chances of death. As Gandhiji told we must be the change we want in the society. So as you said spreading awareness among citizens about this and treating this as a employment skill not only for dalit communities will be a great way to address this. The new technologies will surely help to build products to be handled for this septic tanks. The social definition of them as untouchables must be changed. On seeing your post I realized to not treat manual scavengers as a low employed people and I pledge now to be a changemaker and treat them as a responsible citizens who are making our society clean and neat.

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