As the clock strikes 3 in the morning, Savitri begins her routine as a manual scavenger in her locality. Her job involves going around local houses emptying the human waste from non-flushing toilets. Her innumerable attempts to escape the manual scavenging trade have remained unsuccessful till date.
It is indeed upsetting reality to discern a society still chained in the shackles and hierarchical brackets of caste system. Being a victim Savitri is forced back into a trade which does not guarantee her even the vestiges of humanity to earn a living.
India is home to about 1.3 million citizens  (mainly Dalits) with a similar fate as Savitri’s; struggling with the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging.
Manual Scavenging is an occupation that calls for the manual removal of excreta (night soil) from “dry toilets”, i.e. toilet without the modern flush system in the Indian subcontinent. Manual scavenging is said to have started in 1214 in Europe when the first public toilets appeared. The system of employing people for public sanitation was introduced during the British rule in India in the late 19th century with the emergence of municipalities.
Continuance of such a hideous practice means collapse of ethics with a complete dismantle of morality. It seems Gandhi’s relentless voice against the practice of untouchability has fallen on deaf ears and souls. He wanted to carve a platform of equality for the marginalised, called them ‘Harijans’ i.e. children of God but who knew he was fighting a lost cause?
In 1993, in response to growing domestic and international pressure from human rights groups, the Indian government passed ‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act’. To just give an insight, the Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry toilets not connected to proper drainage channels under the section of CHAPTER PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT OF MANUAL SCAVENGERS, ETC. CHAPTER II PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT OF MANUAL SCAVENGERS, ETC. It applies in the first instance to the whole of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Goa. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and West Bengal and to all the Union territories and it shall also apply to such other State which adopts-this Act by resolution passed in that behalf under clause (1) of article 252 of the Constitution. (3) It shall come into force in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and West Bengal and in the Union territories on such date as the Central Government may, by notification, appoint and in any other State which adopts this Act under clause (1) of article 252 of the Constitution, on the date of such adoption. Violations of the act can lead to imprisonment for up to one year or a substantial fine of 2,000 Indian Rupees.
To further elaborate, some other essential laws that have been introduced in the Indian Judicial system include:
- Article14: Equality before law. (Right to Equality)
- Article 16 (2): Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment
- Article 21 of the Indian Constitution- Guarantees right to life with human dignity Constitution of India;
- Article 23 -24 (Right against Exploitation) of the Indian Constitution- “Beggar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited;
- 1955- The Protection of Civil Rights Act,;
- 1955- The Untouchability (Offences) Act;
- 1957 Report of Scavenging Conditions Enquiry Committee formed by Ministry of Race Affairs. The practice of manual scavenging should be abolished “not later than end of the 3rd five year plan.”
- 1989– The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act;
- 1993– The special courts set up under Protection of Human Rights Act;
- 1997 Enactment of manual scavenging ban.
They not only aim at protecting the self dignity of the marginalised group of Scheduled Castes and Tribes in our society, but even enforce offence and prescribed punishments.
However the real picture tells a different story altogether…
REALITY LIES IN – SHOCKING FACTS?
In spite of this, a 2003 government impact assessment of the Act of 1993 found that the law had only been adopted in 16 of India’s 28 states, and has not been enforced in any. The number of manual scavengers in the country according to the official statistics of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of the Government of India was 676009 for the year 2002-2003.
The highest numbers were in Uttar Pradesh 149202 followed by Madhya Pradesh (80072) and Maharashtra (64785).
Call it euphemism that India has willingly accepted, the job of dealing with the night soil seems to continue even after 63 years of independence and 17 years after a law was passed by Parliament banning it(revised thrice-December 2007, March 2009, March 2010, and again set for a 2012 deadline) since it has by now, derived a “traditional legitimacy” from the our biased system, which is entrenched even in the psyche of those who perform this degrading job as well as those who provide a consent, an approval to it!
CASTE AND JATI: TILL WHEN?
Social and caste oppression seem to seal the fate of these scavengers, long after the abolition of the systems that classify society based on the categories of “purity” and “pollution”- be it the Varna (caste) hierarchy or the Jati segregation. The practice of untouchability is a penal offence under law, punishable with a prison sentence and in some cases, forfeiture of property. More than 50 years on, however, even as the rest of India moves on, to cutting-edge technology and economic power status, the Bhangis in Gujarat, the Pakhis in Andhra Pradesh, and the Sikkaliars in Tamil Nadu continue to carry other people’s filth on their heads and are perceived as untouchable. These communities feature at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India and also the hierarchy of Dalit sub castes.
An important reason for the failure of the Centre and the State government in eradicating this social evil lies in their denial to accept the existence of this shameful practice.
In 2006 , the Madhya Pradesh government, along with some other state governments, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming the practice had ceased to exist in the State. However, a counter-affidavit was filed by 17 organisations from all over India along with photographs and video clippings of manual scavenging, proving the official affidavits wrong.
“Every morning, I go to eight to ten households, collect the garbage in a straw basket and dump it a mile away from the village. When it rains, the waste oozes through the basket over to my hair,” says Guddi Bai (38) of Nateran tehsil.
Paliyad, a village in the Botad Taluka, Bhavnagar district of the State of Gujarat witnesses a similar scene. Conditions are worse in the poorer areas of the village where open defecation is the only available solution.
Over 300 Dalit households have no access to sanitation facilities. Pressure from the manual scavenging community and the Panchayat led to the closure of ‘vaada’ latrines that served the women of the poorest sectors of the village.
Countless loopholes are evident in the ‘rehabilitation’ programmes from the state-level. The Chandigarh UT administration for instance had decided to provide proper pre-fabricated structures to the existing scavengers after the concerned authorities appeared conscious of their responsibility to work for the have-nots uplift. Even after the decision to bring appropriate amendments in the rehabilitation scheme that proposed a construction of 326 structures to rehabilitate the scavengers, only a shocking number of 29 assumed operations.
On an average scale, about 82 percent of those who deal with this curse of manual scavenging are women . Traditionally, women are forced to enter such undignified profession since their early teens. “Ninety percent of all manual scavengers have not been provided proper equipment to protect them from faeces borne illness,” said a January 2007 report on safety . This includes safety equipment like gloves, masks, brooms. Women working unprotected are also in grave danger of contacting countless diseases through their close contact with human waste.
Some of these diseases include: campylobacter infection, TB, cryptosporidiosis, hand, foot and mouth disease, meningitis (viral), etc.
Many of us are hardly aware about the existence of such an evil practice. As members of privileged sections of society concerns of caste and class bias never impact our social life. We are more worried about satisfying our own material needs while ensuring a secure growth.
On the other hand, redundant norms of caste system have come to direct the life of a manual scavenger whose birth into a family of low means and status pushed him/her to the boundaries of an ever “advancing” society. The legal and administration system too take on an abusive meaning for the socially deprived.
‘Occupational mobility’ among the less privileged seems a sacrilege to an already graded hierarchical structure of providence and opportunities.
Can’t we redefine it?
Arpita Mitra (Student, St. Paul’s School)
Ipshita Mitra (Journalism Student, Graduate-Indian Institute of Mass Communication)
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]