One person has died every five days since January 2017 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, says a report provided by the National Commission for Safai Karamchari. Manual scavenging, as defined by the UN is the act of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling human excreta from dry latrines or sewers.” The deed evidently violates the Fundamental Right pledged in Part III of the Constitution which provides for the right to live with dignity. And on a more genuine footing is perilous for the lives of people forced to indulge in the act, mostly victimised by the caste they are born into. Though manual scavenging has been prevalent since ancient times, the enraging fact is that centuries later our country is still grappling with the same problem. Despite the most stringent penal provisions in the law against manual scavenging, it continues in many parts of our country.
The fight against this prevalence had begun back in 1950 by the freedom fighter G. S. Lakshman Iyer. He banned manual scavenging when he was the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality, which became the first local body to ban it officially. In 1994, activist Bezwada Wilson formed a group dubbed as Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for then demolition of then newly illegal ‘dry latrines’ (pit latrines) and the abolition of manual scavenging.
In India various amendments and ameliorations have been made in the definition of manual scavenger provided by The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The act defined a manual scavenger as “a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta.” The act was drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narsimha Rao government in 1993 after six states in country passed a resolution requesting the Central government to frame a law regarding the matter of contention. Years later in 2011 the Socio Economic Caste Census provided that 182,657 households were conscripted to do the dehumanising job as a source for livelihood. A year later, Manual Scavenger Rehabilitation Bill 2012 came with a jacked up and on many accounts comparatively more astute and sensitive amendments to the Act of 1993. The Bill magnified the definition of a manual scavenger to include a person engaged or employed for manual cleaning of human excreta in a binsanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit and railway tracks. It also prohibited the hazardous manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers so that the health and safety of such workers is not compromised.
The government feels that protective gear and safety precautions can be deemed as an alternative to mechanisation but this does set free the local bodies and more importantly the railway authorities to continue to deploy workers for the task. But manual scavenging cannot be justified with the so called provisions of protective gears. And while machines for cleaning the sewers are available globally the government is more bent at providing compensation to the family of workers who die doing the job rather than taking efforts to prevent the deaths in the first place. There is a whole can of worms at the roots of legislative measures. Even the funds provided for the rehabilitation of workers remain unspent. So even the though the laws passed in the Parliament might be fitting their effectiveness can be gauged only through the implementation.
The disapprobation to manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is not just of compromising worker safety – which is no doubt important – but of opprobrium on the face of human dignity, which would continue even if such manual cleaning is done with protective gear Emancipation from this social evil can be administered with the adoption of technological solutions available which will only require the government to put in unbiased investment so that the occupation can be acknowledged as humanly august and does not lead to fatalities. We shouldn’t let any cracked law or for that matter the faulty execution of the law to put on back burner the country’s devoir to end one of modern India’s greatest shames.
Narhitya Nawal studies English literature at Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed are personal.