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No Political Will, Piecemeal Efforts: Is This All We’ll Do To End Manual Scavenging?

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.

Ayushmann Khurana in a still from the movie ‘Article 15’

Last year, Bollywood threw one of its rare anti-caste films Article 15. In my personal view, the movie had more wrongs than rights but, there was one particular scene which really struck a wrong note with me.

Just an hour and 10 minutes into the movie, there is a scene of a sanitation worker coming out of a manhole, trying to unclog the drainage system which was not attended due to a protest. This is just outside the police station whose in-charge is our protagonist, Ayan Ranjan, played by Ayushmann Khurrana.

Ayan, who dreams of eradicating the caste system, bats an ignorant eye to the worker who, without any protective gear, has jumped into a sewage tank to unclog it. 

This Ayan is more of a representation of our society, who understands that manual scavenging is a filthy job which is banned in our country but still finds it difficult to eradicate it. This society is made up of policy-makers, media, NGOs and us, people who should be serious in making sure this practice is eradicated.

It should also be noted that the coverage on manual scavenging in our country is distorted, to say the least. A major chunk of the coverage that we see is about the campaigns and initiatives that the government launch, mostly in the form of ‘PR activity’. For us, to be seriously thinking about eradicating manual scavenging, some questions we really need to ask include ‘who the policy is affecting’, how the policy will be implemented, and what the benefits of such policies are.  

Discrepancies In The Number Of Deaths

If the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is the most ‘crucial’ initiative by the current government, then every person who’s lost their life has to be counted as a martyr of this country. Manual scavenging, a punishing practice which was set upon the people of a certain caste, was banned under the Manual Scavenger Act (1993), and this act was then amended in 2013 by making it punishable for any person engaging in hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.

But still, from 2016-2019, based on the FIRs filled in most urban and semi-urban areas, 282 sanitation workers died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in our country. This figure is just tip of the iceberg, comments Bezwada Wilson, the national convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organisation who is working to eradicate manual scavenging.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan website has been collecting district-wise data since 1993, and it states that around 1,760 workers have died due to sanitation work. Every life that is taken by this reprehensible practice is our failure to eradicate it.

There is a clear gap with the numbers reported by NGOs working at the ground level and the coverage by mainstream media.

Government Accountability And Policy Implementation 

The continuous updating of policies related to manual scavenging only shows the unwillingness of various governments to finalise a solution for this dreaded practice. Governments have always been in denial mode and reduce to accept the extent of this problem. Till date, we do not have an exact count of people engaged in different kinds of manual scavenging across our country.

The latest news of the government initiative of ending manual scavenging by 2021 through SafaiMitra Suraksha Challenge looks more of a PR activity than a serious effort to curb this practice. The challenge talks about mechanising all sewer and septic tank cleaning in India.

Speaking to NDTV Magsaysay Award winner and social activist Bezwada Wilson posed some very thought-provoking questions around the government initiative,

“It is a welcoming step. However, a lot is still not known about the initiative. Who will receive the machines? Who will monitor? Who will be held accountable for the implementation? How will they give training? As far as I know, nothing has been worked out yet. The biggest issue is, the government has not yet identified the people involved in manual scavenging.

Before launching the scheme, all these vital aspects should have been factored in. Even though the mechanisation of sewer and septic cleaning is very much needed, the way this initiative has been launched seems to be a hasty act. Such a piecemeal approach will not be effective in the long run. A holistic approach seems to be missing which is evident from the fact that till date the government has not been able to identify the manual scavengers.”

According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan website, the average age of sanitation workers is around 40 years. The cause of death is not only due to asphyxiation but also due to life-threatening diseases like cholera, meningitis, TB, and more. One solution for this is the use of science and technology and it does come to help when we think of providing safe alternatives to manual scavenging practices that take place today. For example, the Bandicoot sewer cleaning machine which was developed by engineers from Kerala in 2018 that various states have already started to put to use.

Technology can help with toxic gases in the sewer but it cannot help with the toxicity that lies in our society, which can only be eradicated through civic education in every walk of life. The correction of historical wrongs and providing alternative careers by adhering to the law (which was enacted almost a decade back) in its true sense will be a good start in the process of changing the present. Otherwise, the use of technology will only replace the word ‘manual’ to ‘auto’.

Rehabilitation And Inclusion 

Even though there has been a piecemeal effort to bring policy changes to eradicate manual scavenging, there is hardly any discussion on issues and challenges of rehabilitation or inclusion in alternate careers. It is an open secret that manual scavenging is a caste-based job and highly skewed towards women. There hasn’t really been too much effort from governments to provide alternate careers for the same. Quality education and the assurance of alternate jobs is the bare minimum that our current and upcoming governments should commit to. 

The funds which are allotted to the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers has to be used wisely by the government. The budget allocation of Rs 110 Crores for the year 2020-21 was not released according to this report till September 2020. On the topic of funds disbursement, Wilson had said that there is no political will to save the lives of manual scavengers.

“The finance minister in her last year’s budget speech said mechanised facilities would be provided to stop manual scavenging. The allocation was Rs 110 crore. No mechanisation has been done. Now the same amount has been allocated. There is no political will to save the lives of manual scavengers.”

Manual scavenging is a human rights issue, and that people from certain caste have been exploited for generations under our nose is a failure of us as a society. If we are really thinking of eradicating this practice then there has to be a serious effort at all levels from government, media, NGOs and activists. 

Of course, the government has the funds but there has to be responsible behaviour to channelise it. It’s been almost three decades we have ‘banned’ manual scavenging and yet till date, there are people dying due to the practice. It’s surely not an impossible dream where our country, on one hand, is thinking of sending a vehicle to the moon but cannot make a responsible effort to end manual scavenging and set things right.   

Created by Nikhil

Do you feel Manual Scavenging will be eradicate by the end of 2021?

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. Mrinal Trivedi

    Top piece! Very informative article and research is fantastic! Lengthy read, but gives a thorough understanding of the issue being discussed.

    If some of the data could be provided in charts / tables instead of written sentences, it might be a more fluent and easier read as an important issue is highlighted and there is a lot to convey

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