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The Truth About This Shameful Practice Exposes Our Anti-Dalit Mindset

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.

In the latest, the National Human Rights Commission slammed the government for manipulating the data of manual scavengers in the country. Many states made tall claims of successfully reducing the number of manual scavengers, even going as far as declaring complete eradication of the practice from their states. But, according to the survey conducted by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis in 2019, there are a total of 48345 manual scavengers in 18 states of the country.

The death rate of manual scavengers has also seen an increase of 61% in 2019 compared to 2018 and it is the highest in the last 5 years and a total of 814 deaths of Manual Scavengers have been recorded between 1993 to 2019. These deaths can be termed as institutional murders as the onus of the deaths is on the Indian government which, despite framing laws in this regard, failed to eradicate this inhuman, unhealthy, hateful and hereditary practise of manual scavenging.

Representational image.

Manual scavenging has been prevalent in India since ancient times and also has religious sanctions. The International Labour Conference in its 111th convention passed a resolution to abolish such practices in 1958. Activist Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan began his fight in 1986 to end Manual Scavenging. He began a letter-writing campaign, contacting the KGF authorities, the Chief Minister, the Prime Minister and news agencies but all was in vain.

The Indian government took cognizance of the issue after strong resistance from activists and organisations across India and the Narasimha Rao government introduced “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines(Prohibition) Act, 1993” to eradicate Manual Scavenging from India. Bezwada Wilson, who is regarded as the face of resistance, argued that this act was a total failure and continued to agitate and struggle with a collective team of activists, like-minded people and organisations across India.

Even after the implementation of the prohibition act, many organizations including railways, educational institutes, defence and judiciary continued to employ manual scavengers. Despite the ban, this inhumane practise continued across India. In 2003, Bezwada Wilson and other ally organisations including Safai Karmachari Andolan filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court of India naming all the states and the government sector organisations as the violators of the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act. They also successfully converted Safai Karmachari Andolan into a nationwide movement.

The government, which was under immense pressure, tried to address protests and the discussion around Manual Scavenging by making amends to the 1993 Act and rolled out “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013”. This act prohibits the construction of insanitary latrines and the employment of any person for manual scavenging. It also has provisions to punish the culprit with imprisonment up to 5 years or 5 lakh fine or both.

Wilson says, “This Bill does not contain concrete measures for rehabilitation. It does not talk about the mechanism of its implementation. It is still not clear who will formulate the schemes and how they will be implemented.” He further adds, “The Bill is just another exercise to cover up government’s failures.”

In a country where even one death happens due to manual scavenging, it should be a matter of national shame that the government has not only failed to eradicate manual scavenging but has also failed to provide necessary safety equipment to the sanitation workers.

The Safai Karmachari Andolan along with other organisations managed to bring down the number of Manual Scavengers from 15 lakhs in 1996 to 48345 in 2019 but eradication still seems to be a distant dream. In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was conferred with the ‘Global Goalkeeper Award’ for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan after declaring India was free from open defecation which obviously was only on paper. It won’t be wrong to say that the government put more efforts into covering the issue of manual scavenging rather than actually addressing it.

We can see the hypocrisy of the government where on one hand it says that it is committed to eradicating this practice and on the other hand Prime Minister Modi calls manual scavenging a spiritual experience. PM Modi often indulges in the photo-ops washing feet of Dalit safai karamcharis on camera but his actions speak volumes about his anti-Dalit mindset. It is inaccurate to say that the laws framed by the government are completely flawed but the government lacks the will for implementation.

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!

Featured image source: Photo by Anindito Mukherjee/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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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