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What Is Lacking In India’s Response To End The Casteist Practice Of Manual Scavenging?

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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.

The still persisting practice of manual scavenging reflects the remains of the caste system in India which even after 73 years of Independence could not be eradicated in its entirety. The extremely rigid Varna system or the ancient caste hierarchy had four levels with Brahmins at the top followed by Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra and then there were people who did not find a place in this classification, the outcasts who were expected to perform the most inhumane tasks.

The end of World War II was a watershed moment in the history of human rights and also for India as it gained Independence soon after. That was the only time when the community of manual scavengers was heard, thought about, and their plight was brought to light by the two most revered figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Sadly since then, there has not been much debate and discussion about them in mainstream politics or media.

The constitution of India at the very time of its inception has acknowledged the caste inequalities deeply ingrained in Indian society and hence Part III (Fundamental Rights) was expected to address it effectively. Additionally, Articles 332, 334, 243T, 243D (i) were intended to empower the people from suppressed communities called Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe by providing them opportunities through reservation in public posts so as to step to integrate them into mainstream society.

These provisions over time, though quite slowly, have benefitted people from ST/SC community and have diluted the rigidity in the caste system.  Nevertheless, a particular sub-group of Schedule Caste associated with sanitation work is still engaged in the same work as the pre-independence while other communities have progressed to exercise their own choices.

Manual scavenging is the worst form of human rights violation as cleaning the excreta completely takes away the dignity of an individual which is an inherent human right. The very reason why this particular community has lagged behind is the nature of their work. People abhor manual scavengers when it comes to their acceptance in society.

Most of the avenues for their employment and education are closed the moment their identity as a manual scavenger is revealed. This is a vicious trap where on one hand they are provided opportunities to do something else by virtue of reservation policies but when they try to do something else they face discrimination and dejection, pushing them back where they were.

Representational image.

The Flaws In The Prohibition Act(s)

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act, 1993 (ii)(hereinafter the 1993 Act) was brought to initiate change in society by prohibiting the employment of people for manual scavenging and punishing those who still employ them. This act faced backlash by several civil societies, NGOs and even Supreme Court because it only included manual scavengers, leaving out people who were involved in cleaning sewers and septic tanks which evidently involve contact with human excreta and were inherently life-threatening.

This problem never was the prime concern of either the Central or State Governments as the Railway Authorities continued to hire men for manually cleaning human/animal excreta on railway tracks despite the 1993 Act being in force. In fact, many state governments did not enact this act as late as 2010. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013,[iii] (hereinafter the 2013 Act) was more expansive and inclusive as it prohibited the employment of people for cleaning sewer or septic tanks terming them as hazardous.

It also had provisions of Rehabilitation apart from enhanced punishment for employers who engaged workers in such hazardous activities resulting in the death of many sanitation workers every year while cleaning sewers and septic tanks or by diseases such as dengue, malaria, tuberculosis and skin infections. The disheartening part of all this is that this community faces scorns and ill-treatment as soon as the hospital staff realises that they are sanitation workers…

Though the 2013 act looked effective, yet it allowed the employment of sanitation workers to perform theses hazardous tasks provided that they were given proper protective gear by the employer. Nevertheless, manual scavenging was completely prohibited irrespective of the safety equipment.

Now the problem lies in the situation that this particular community has its identity associated with sanitation work and owing to the filthy nature of their job, they clearly have not been accepted or allowed to integrate into society. Despite the prohibiting acts in place, they are being employed to perform menial jobs in many remote as well as urban areas as sewage, septic tank cleaners and manual scavengers.

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been a single prosecution arising out of the 1993 Act or the 2013 Act till now.

Whatever bit of change followed could be attributed to the PILs (Public Interest Litigation) and judicial activism with no seriousness on the part of the government or executing authorities to bring the change. Compensating the family members after the death of a sanitation worker while cleaning sewer or septic, is not the end (desired result); instead, complete prevention of deaths is the goal. The municipality as well as a private person still employ these people ignoring all the laws and acts in place.

Recently, the Government of India has proposed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 which on the whole intends to root out the evil of manual scavenging through 100% mechanisation for the cleaning of septic tanks and manholes. This will definitely be effective in reducing the number of deaths; also the employment of these people in these inhuman jobs will slowly come down. The problematic part is the rehabilitation process.

Since this community has handed to mouth sustenance and is completely dependent only on sanitation jobs which they have been doing for generations they are completely unskilled, uneducated hence unable undertake any other profession. Additionally, their identity of belonging from the community of sanitation workers would further subject them to prejudices of society disabling them to pursue a new profession. These prejudices might not exist in the crème de la crème section of society but exist strongly in rural and remote areas.

The correspondence between liberation and rehabilitation is essential for vesting human rights in the real sense that includes not just civil and political rights but also social and economic justice.

Representational image.

All the steps taken by the government in this regard are in sync with the international human rights conventions and treaties for example Article 1, 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[iv] is imbibed in Articles 14, 15 and 19 of the Constitution of India[v]; Article 2 of Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)[vi], Article 26 of International Convention on Cultural political rights (ICCPR)[vii] are already incorporated in Articles 14, 15, 17, 19 of Constitution.

Most importantly, Article 21 of the Indian constitution is the guarantor of individual freedom, liberty and dignity. Arising from these rights are the government’s duties as a welfare state to ensure these rights to people that are included in Article 43. For a better and targeted reach of these laws, separate acts like the 1993 Act and the 2013 Act were enacted. Despite all these steps their situation has remained stagnant and thus demands rethinking as to why this community, of all other schedule castes communities, could not be empowered and liberated.

Maybe it’s not the constitution that is lacking but constitutional morality that is missing.

Though India is a secular country, people here are highly religious and continue to follow old cultural practices with little to no awareness about the constitution that governs them.  Therefore, constitutional morality will take a lot more time to diffuse into the masses. So the ideal way to infuse constitutional morality could be normalising the acceptance of this community in the society that is through educating people of the rights that the Constitution of India provides to each and every citizen including the community of sanitation workers.

This could be similar to Pavlov’s classical conditioning[viii] experiment here on masses where systematically people are regularly informed about the equal rights of this community thus gradually normalising their acceptance in the community. Just like the extensive drives on ‘Saving and educating daughters’, Family Planning, and ‘exercising the right to vote’ had resulted in tremendous changes in Indian society, the campaigns and drives to encourage people to give up their prejudices and acknowledge the human rights of this community are urgently needed.

The government needs to focus on this community to compensate for the years of disregard they have suffered, through extensive awareness programmes with the active help of NGOs and Civil Societies. The Rehabilitation as provided in Chapter IV and Setting up Vigilance committees in Chapter VII of the 2013 Act adequately addresses this issue. The only obstacle is the proper implementation of this act at the ground level.

With the advent of technology, governance in India has got significantly digitalised and therefore could also be used for better outreach to the affected community. Accurate data collection on the number and employment status of manual scavengers could be done with fewer chances of corruption in the benefits extended to this community. Since most of these workers don’t even have any clue about their constitutional rights let alone the beneficial provisions in particular acts of 1993 or 2013, they need to be sensitised regarding the schemes run by state and central government for their rehabilitation. They can only exercise their rights if they know they have rights.

[i] India Const art 332, 334, 243T, 243D.
[ii] The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.
[iii] The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
[iv] Universal Deceleration of Human Rights, art. 1, 2, 1948.
[v] India Const art 14, 15, 19.
[vi] Convention on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, art 2, 1965.
[vii] International Convention on Cultural Political Rights, art 26 , 1966.
[viii] Classical Conditioning, Lumen learning, https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-psychology/chapter/classicalconditioning/#:~:text=Classical%20Conditioning%20in%20Humans,stomach%20upset%20in%20the%20past.
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