This article is written by Muskaan Bangani by Mody University of Science and Technology, Lakshmangarh, Rajasthan, and curated by Anjeeta Rani of Chanakya National Law University.
In India, the practice of manual scavenging is widely prevalent.
Years and years have passed, yet no concrete steps have been taken to stop this filthy and disgusting practice. The promises made by the current government are shallow and ineffective. Just like the other politicians before her, Nirmala Sitharaman had also promised in her last budget speech to abolish manual cleaning of sewage tanks. However, she too seems to have forgotten her promise.
During this pandemic, Sitharaman announced an insurance scheme for all the COVID-19 warriors, who died while saving the lives of the patient. If healthcare workers die on duty, they are called martyrs. They have their life insured. But if our sanitary soldiers die, no one bats an eyelid.
From the legal perspective, there were two acts introduced by the Parliament to eradicate the problem. The first one was The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act,1993, which made manual scavenging a cognizable offense. But the irony is that there is not a single case filed against the accused under the said act. The second act, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was introduced to preserve the rights of manual scavengers and address the issue of rehabilitation, but this also failed miserably on the account of implementation. This act imposed stricter penalties and made the offense non-bailable. The act aimed to dismiss hazardous cleaning, with the condition that the sanitation worker is provided with suitable protective gear. According to them, protective gear includes gloves only. Thirdly, in The Constitution of India, 1950, Article 15 prohibits discrimination based on caste and gender, Article 17 abolishes untouchability, Article 21 states the right to live a healthy life with dignity, Article 23 abolishes forced labor. However, the ground reality is different because the community of Dalits is forced to clean hundreds of septic tanks every day. Even after 73 years of independence, these workers die while doing what they think is their duty, and nobody in the government/administration cares. The problems faced by these manual scavengers have never been considered by the State as the state is not willing to accept them as a part of our community.
It is common knowledge that Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers.
The hypocrisy of the government is apparent when the administration on one hand promises to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging whereas on the other hand, hires manual scavengers from private contractors, on the pretext of generating employment. This leads to further exploitation of the already exploited Dalit community.
Narendra Modi’s ‘‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’’ has been promoting personal hygiene, community hygiene through a nationwide cleanliness campaign. The campaign has been reduced to becoming a regular photo-op for ministers and other leaders. One can find them featured in local newspapers and magazines holding brooms and sweeping floors. In all these self-advertising and self-endorsing gimmicks, the manual scavenger is missing. For he is the one who cleans toilets, gutters, sewage pits, etc. without any protective gear or life/medical insurance. They are not merely sanitation workers but warriors. But the sad yet bitter truth is that these selfless warriors are dying while cleaning India’s dirt and filth. The biggest flaw in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is that the Abhiyan is implemented to build a good sanitation facility for all but the responsibility of cleaning the toilets is in the hands of a particular community only. Why this injustice?
According to the Socio-Economic Census, there are about 182,505 people in rural areas that are engaged in manual scavenging.
According to the Census of India survey, 2011, there are nearly 740,078 families who are engaged in manual scavenging.
According to a 2017 survey by the ministry, there are 53,326 people, in over 12 states that are engaged in manual scavenging. Delhi accounts for 43,000 scavengers alone.
Uttar Pradesh alone has 28,796 scavengers. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, 95% of the manual scavengers are female. In Manipur, there are 600 manual scavengers alone.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims in his book Karamyogi that manual scavenging work is a spiritual experience. A more accurate description is the one given by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question of whether he scavenges or not.”
It has been more than six years but our Prime Minister has not spent a single penny for the development and upliftment of manual scavengers even after repeated assurances. During the previous tenure of the UPA government, they had spent Rs.55 crores in the year 2013-2014, however, after this no one spent a single penny for them.
It’s high time the government at the helm of affairs, takes serious cognizance of these numbers and takes concrete steps to abolish the system of manual scavenging by using technology and looking for alternate means of cleaning and disposal of filth. Unless they come to the rescue of this community, by acting as a savior, we will be defeated in the very idea of B. R. Ambedkar, that we pretend to uphold.