Manual Scavenging: A Treachery in Disguise

Manual Scavenging is a menace less known about. In fact, the crime is not even reported most of the times and hence becomes very difficult to combat. This blog talks about the serious Human Right Violations that occur by Manual Scavenging and about laws that could deal with the same.

Manual scavenging is a term which makes us frown, its imagination makes us feel gross and accepting and owning it as our societal norm makes us feel ashamed, but still survives in parts of India without. It is thought to be most prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Some municipalities in India still run public toilets using simple pit latrines. The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where most of the train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually.

According to the Supreme Court, there are ninety-six lakh dry latrines in the whole country. But the data shown by every state says there are hardly 10-20 manual scavengers. So, is it that these dry latrines clean themselves? Those who dirty their hands lead a wretched life full of massive social discrimination. It’s their health that takes a heavy toll as well. This gap between the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers is the key obstruction in the process of solving the matter because without identification of these manual scavengers we cannot proceed towards their rehabilitation and reintegration.

Manual scavenging is traditionally a role determined by the outlawed caste system for members of the Dalit caste, usually from the Balmiki or Hela subcaste. This leads to Dalits spending their whole lives living an undignified life.

Legal Assistance- A Savior

As per the Indian, Constitution sanitation is a state subject. Under this, in February 2013 Delhi announced that they are banning manual scavenging, making it the first state/UT in India to do so. But because of lack of implementation and inadequacy of laws regarding this in the country, the central government had to intervene by using Article 252 of the Constitution which empowers Parliament to legislate for two or more States by consent and adoption of such legislation by any other State, the Government of India has enacted various laws. The continuance of such discriminatory practice is a violation of ILO’s Convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation) too. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was thus formulated and passed in this regard. The Act punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. No convictions were obtained under the law during the 20 years it was in force.

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The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013 and in December 2013 the formulation of Rules-2013 called as “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules 2013” or “M.S. Rules 2013” was proposed by the Government.  Further, the hearing on 27 March 2014 was held on Manual Scavenging of writ petition number 583 of 2003, and Supreme Court issued final orders and case was disposed of with various directions to the Government. The objectives of the Act is to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and to maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. The Law contradicts itself first by banning this practice and then by prescribing a set of guidelines and minimum equipment which are required to be worn before entering a manhole. And in spite of having this legislation for more than 15 years, the practice of manual scavenging is rampant in various parts of the country in both the private and government establishments.

The Hindu says that identification of manual scavengers is the first step towards rehabilitating them. The NCSC observed in a note circulated for the meeting that “expenditure for the last three years is negligible” under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS). The budgeted amount for SRMS for 2015-16 was Rs. 470.19 Cr. The actual expenditure was “nil.” Interestingly, Rajasthan, Punjab, and West Bengal have reported an increase in the number of manual scavengers over the previous year.

Regarding the health issues faced by these people, in 2003 Supreme Court order says the practice of entering sewer lines without safety gear is a crime even in emergency situations. The death of a worker resulting from such situations requires the employer to pay compensation to the tune of Rs 10 lakh to the family of the deceased. A large number of latrines have pigs around them. Many contract leptospirosis through contact with pigs’ blood, urine, and other body fluids. Leptospirosis causes high fever, joint pain, anemia, and liver and kidney infections and can be fatal. In the 1970s, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak introduced his “Sulabh” concept for building and managing public toilets in India, which has introduced a hygienic and well-managed public toilet system. The government also supported this cause by providing for very nominal rents for these Sulabh toilets at prime locations.

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Every problem has a Solution

The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was introduced in January 2007 with the objective of rehabilitating the remaining manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations by March 2009.  However, as this could not be done by the target date, the Scheme was extended to March 2010, with a provision for the coverage of spill-over of beneficiaries even thereafter, if required.  As per the updated number, reported by States/UTs, after launching of the Scheme, 1.18 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents in 18 States/UTs were identified for implementation of the Scheme.

Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of the illegal ‘dry latrines’ and the abolition of manual scavenging. Despite the efforts of Wilson and other activists, the practice persists two decades later. In July 2008 “Mission Sanitation” was a fashion show held by the United Nations as part of its International Year of Sanitation. On the runway were 36 previous workers, called scavengers, and top models to help bring awareness of the issue of manual scavenging.

But these measures do not seem adequate, so let’s own it up and stop denying it at first and let’s focus on the strict implementation of the laws.

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