In solidarity with those fighting for an end to the inhuman practice of Manual Scavenging
and to say, loudly and clearly, that this not their battle alone, and that manual scavenging is a practice that all of us demand be eradicated, immediately
On April 13, 2016, the Bhim Yatra would have wound to a close, having travelled around the country – Dibrugarh se Dilli tak – for 125 days, commemorating Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary. The message was simple and direct:
Stop Killing Us
What prompted this dramatic statement? Think about this:
Between March 2014 and March 2016, the Safai karamchari Andolan has documented 1268 reported instances of death in sewer cleaning; and these are only the reported deaths. In just one day in March, 2016, there was a report of four persons – Sunil Valmiki, Ricky Valmiki, Sumit Chauhan and Balya Masade – dying, and one more person – Pramod Chauhan – being in a critical condition after they inhaled poisonous gas while cleaning a blocked sewer near Nagpur. These deaths are entered in police records as `accidental deaths”. A March 2014 judgment of the Supreme Court said that every death in the sewer should be compensated by the payment of Rs 10 lakhs to the family. What they are saying now is that, while they see the utility of compensation, they would much prefer that no one dies cleaning sewers.
In 1993, decades after the Constitution came into force, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 was enacted. In 2003, the community had to go to court to get the law to move and not become a dead letter.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gave its final order, where, among other things, the court acknowledged that manual scavenging is a “practice squarely rooted in the concept caste-based system and untouchability”. In the meantime, in large measure because of the pressure created on the government to act under the 1993 Act, the government decided to enact a fresh legislation, which it did in 2013 (found at http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Manual%20Scavengers/Manual%20Scavengers%20as%20passed%20by%20LS.pdf). One major change that was introduced in this Act was the acknowledgment of sewer deaths, when persons enter the sewers and die in consequence. For the first time, compensation was fixed to be paid when such deaths occur. While the compensation is a palliative, though, what the affected community seeks is no deaths.
The 2013 Act mandated the conducting of a survey of persons in manual scavenging as a prelude to their rehabilitation and to the ending of this practice. Not it seems that Act too is going to need the community to activate! In September 2015, the Delhi High Court was heard asking why nothing, but nothing, had yet been done when the law expected the process to be finished and done with by February 2016. The court said: “Even after the enactment of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, it appears that the plight of persons who are engaged in manual scavenging in Delhi has not improved. This is so because the very survey which was required to be conducted under section 11 for the purposes of identification of manual scavengers has not been done.”(The orders of the Supreme Court and of the High Court are in the attachment.)
In 2010, the affected community went on a country wide yatra demanding the eradication of the practice and the rehabilitation of the community. Now, they have had to do it all over again!
Untouchability is a constitutional offence, and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of disability arising out of untouchability “shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law”, it says, in Article 17. Sixty four years later, in March 2014, the Supreme Court was still having to address the “obnoxious practice of manual scavenging across the country, a practice squarely rooted in the concept of the caste system and untouchability”.
A recurrent question during the yatra: “Why can’t the government modernise and mechanise the sanitation system? People are going to the moon, and we are cleaning the toilets with our bare hands.” Why, indeed, cannot technology be prioritised in the cleaning of toilets and sewers?
How do we get the government to listen? and to respond?
This is a task that the affected community has carried on, on their own. We cannot allow it to be the burden of one community. They have criss-crossed the country twice already, once in 2010 and again now. They shouldn’t have to do it again. Some of that responsibility rests with us.
Bhim Yatra reaches Delhi
April 13, 2016
between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m