Hundreds of manual¬†scavengers from across¬†the country have taken¬†a break from work,¬†determined never to¬†go back to the degrading work.¬†At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, those¬†who are termed as voiceless are¬†engaging in relentless sloganeering¬†and drumbeating to mark the birth¬†anniversary of one of the most¬†iconic figure of India, a person¬†who fought for the rights of the¬†Dalits throughout his life, Dr BR¬†Ambedkar.
Meters away from the spot,¬†others are staring at them with¬†a strange look, wondering what¬†these people are up to. A passersby¬†inquired from TEHELKA¬†about their¬†protest. On being told the protestors¬†are the people who clean toilets but¬†aspire for a better life, the response¬†was, ‚ÄúWho will clean up the latrines¬†if not them? It‚Äôs their job.‚ÄĚ This reply¬†reflects the rigidity of the caste¬†system and its deep entrenchment¬†in the mind of a common Indian.
Manual scavenging as a practice¬†was abolished in the year 1993 by¬†an Act of Parliament. However, the¬†shameful practice continues even¬†today despite enactment of a new¬†law in the year 2013 with harsher¬†punishment, called the Prohibition¬†of Employment as Manual¬†Scavengers and their Rehabilitation¬†Act 2013.
If one goes by the socioeconomic¬†census of 2011, about¬†180,657 households are still¬†working as manual scavengers in¬†the country and 796,000 cases of¬†still exist. The International Labour¬†Organisation describes three forms¬†of manual scavenging in India:
(1) Removal of human excrement¬†from public streets and ‚Äėdry latrines‚Äô¬†(meaning simple pit latrines¬†without a water seal)
(2) Cleaning septic tanks.
(3) Cleaning gutters and sewers.
A deadline was envisaged for¬†the implementation of the enacted¬†law against ¬†manual ¬†scavenging.¬†However, so far it has hardly been¬†implemented, which is obvious¬†from the fact that there are hardly¬†any prosecutions in these cases. ¬†Most parts of middle-class India¬†do not even know that engaging¬†someone in this job is a crime. This¬†is the backdrop why an educated¬†youngster can give the kind of reply¬†mentioned above.
The practice is rampant despite¬†stringent laws being in place.¬†The most common sight of such¬†scavengers are railways station¬†where men can be seen cleaning up¬†human excreta assembled on the¬†railway tracks.
The gravity of the matter¬†even forced the apex court of the¬†country to reprimand the state¬†governments many a times for¬†their failure to implement anti-scavenging¬†laws. According the¬†court, there were 9.6 million dry¬†latrines being manually emptied¬†but the exact number of manual¬†scavengers is disputed.¬†However,¬†the government and social¬†organisations differ on this data.
But the problem of these¬†scavengers is just not about their¬†dignity, there are many health¬†hazards attached with this work,¬†which at times lead to their deaths.¬†According to Bezwada Wilson,¬†who has been working with the¬†scavengers for long, since he¬†formed the ska, no less than 1,200¬†people have died during the process¬†of cleansing gutters. The primary¬†demand of these agitators is that¬†death due to scavenging work¬†should be recognised as homicide.
Among their demands are that¬†dry latrines should be abolished¬†completely. The government¬†should document deaths during¬†scavenging; there should be¬†modernisation of sewer tanks¬†throughout the country; as per¬†Supreme Court order, 10 lakh be¬†paid immediately to those who¬†died and many others, including¬†creating a national fund for those¬†who died in the process of cleaning¬†sewers.
Wilson has just completed 125¬†days of Bhim Yatra, that involved¬†travelling to different parts of¬†India to create awareness and¬†mobilise people against this¬†inhumane practice. He claims that¬†he has written to all the concerned¬†ministries about their demands¬†but there has hardly been any¬†response yet.
Amidst this tragedy that has¬†been unfolding for a long time now,¬†the much fanfare created around¬†the Swachh Bharat Mission appears¬†to be a sham as it has not yielded¬†much results in the past two years,¬†claim these protestors and activists.¬†The SBM mission plans to construct¬†12 crore toilets in rural India by¬†October 2019, costing around Rs¬†1.96 crore.
Suman, one of those present¬†at the meeting told TEHELKA, if the¬†government is really sincere about¬†its Swachh Bharat Mission, it should¬†immediately meet all our demands¬†and rehabilitate us.
Another protestor, pointing out¬†at the ‚Äėhypocrisy‚Äô of the government¬†said, ‚ÄúEveryone is talking about¬†Ambedkar these days, but have they¬†ever understood what Ambedkar¬†wanted? If they had, they would¬†have been the first ones to prevent¬†us from doing what we do. This is so¬†inhumane and barbaric. We cannot¬†sit and have food with others. I¬†am surprised how come you are¬†shaking hands with me: it happens¬†only once in a while that people¬†are ready to touch us. Everyone is¬†ready to appropriate Ambedkar for¬†political benefits and for our votes¬†but hardly anyone is willing to do¬†away with the practices Ambedkar¬†fought against.‚ÄĚ
The protest culminated with¬†burning of baskets, symbolic of¬†those in which human excreta¬†is carried by these women. The¬†ball is now in the government‚Äôs¬†court: It has to respond if it is really¬†sincere in implementing values¬†or ideas propagated by Ambedkar.¬†Otherwise that great visionary will¬†be reduced to a symbol of vote-bank politics. The government also needs¬†to realise that Swachh Bharat¬†can only be successful if manual¬†scavenging is eliminated and¬†replaced with modern toilets.