The more than four-month-long Bhim Yatra that culminated a day before the 125th birth celebrations of B R Ambedkar highlighted the pitiable conditions of the most downtrodden of the Dalits, the manual scavengers. While there are a slew of laws to check manual scavenging, they remain largely on paper. The Dalit leadership has also ignored the plight of manual scavengers.
As the world readied for the gala celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a section of Dalits who work as manual scavengers gathered in the capital. They had marched 3,500 km, starting at Dibrugarh in Assam more than four months ago. Traversing 500 districts in 30 states over 125 days, the manual scavengers’ march, called the Bhim Yatra, reached Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 13 April 2016.
The Dalits had rallied under the banner of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) and their cry of anguish, “Do Not Kill Us,” referred to more than 22,000 unsung deaths of sanitation workers every year—incidentally acknowledged by the Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament, Tarun Vijay, in the Rajya Sabha, just the previous month. With tears flowing down their cheeks and in choking voices, several children narrated horrific tales of their kith and kin falling victims to this noxious practice. The stories symptomised a terrible paradox. While Ambedkar is being lionised as a super icon, the people he lived and fought for have to beg for their basic existence.
The Constitution of India abolished untouchability but did nothing to change the conditions that reproduce it. The safai karamcharis, who had marched to Delhi, suffer untouchability in its worst form. They are untouchables not only to the caste Hindus but even to other Dalit castes. Gandhi, notwithstanding his regressive views on the matter, had rightly identified Bhangi (caste identified with manual scavenging) as the representative of Dalits and posed himself as one to make his point. He lived in a Bhangi colony to show his love for them. It was imperative that the state swearing by Gandhi should have given top priority to outlawing this dehumanising work and rehabilitating people engaged in it. But it chose to dodge the issue with its pet strategy of launching committees and commissions which while exhibiting concern about manual scavenging also deferred dealing with it for 46 years.
This game had begun as early as 1949 and continues even today. In 1949, the then government of Bombay appointed a committee, the Scavengers’ Living Conditions Enquiry Committee, headed by V N Barve, to enquire into the living conditions of the scavengers and suggest ways to ameliorate them. The committee submitted its report in 1952. In 1955, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) circulated a copy of the major recommendations of this committee to all the state governments and asked them to adopt them. However, nothing happened.
In 1957, the MHA set up a committee headed by N R Malkani to prepare a scheme to put an end to the practice of scavenging. The committee submitted its report in 1960; it asked the central and state governments to jointly draw up a phased programme for implementing its recommendations so as to end manual scavenging within the Third Five Year Plan. Nothing came of these recommendations too.
In 1965, the government appointed another committee to look into the matter. The committee recommended the dismantling of the hereditary task structure under which non-municipalised cleaning of private latrines was passed on from generation to generation of scavengers. This report also went into cold storage. In 1968–69, the National Commission on Labour recommended a comprehensive legislation for regulating the working, service and living conditions of scavengers. During the Gandhi Centenary Year (1969), a special programme for converting dry latrines to water-borne flush latrines was undertaken but it failed at the pilot stage itself. In 1980, the MHA introduced a scheme for conversion of dry latrines into sanitary latrines and rehabilitation of liberated scavengers and their dependents in selected towns by employing them in dignified occupations. In 1985, the scheme was transferred from MHA to the Ministry of Welfare. In 1991, the Planning Commission bifurcated the scheme: the Ministries of Urban Development and Rural Development were made responsible for conversion of dry latrines and the Ministry of Welfare (renamed Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in May 1999) was given the task of rehabilitating scavengers. In 1992, the Ministry of Welfare introduced National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS) and their Dependents but that too had little effect.
Articles 14, 17, 21 and 23 of the Constitution could be counted upon to stop the practice of manual scavenging. For instance, Section 7A and 15A of the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (formerly known as the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955), enacted to implement Article 17, provided for the liberation of scavengers as well as stipulating punishment for those continuing to engage scavengers. As such, one could argue that there was no need for the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This act had received the presidential assent on 5 June 1993, but remained unpublished in the Gazette of India until 1997. No state promulgated it until 2000. Irked by the persistent inaction by the government, the SKA, started by the children of the Safai Kamgars in 1994, along with six other civil society organisations and seven people belonging to the community of manual scavengers, filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court in December 2003. The PIL called for contempt proceeding against the government. The denial mode of the various state governments had to be countered by the SKA with voluminous data during a 12-year battle that culminated in a sympathetic judgment on 27 March 2014.
The Court inter alia directed the government to give compensation of ₹10 lakh to next-of-kin of each manual scavenger who died on duty (including sewer cleaning) since 1993. The Bhim Yatra documented 1,268 such deaths; only 18 of the deceased had received compensation.
Parliament has also passed another act, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But nothing has moved on the ground. While the state governments had gone on denial spree after promulgation of the 1993 Act, the 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India. The biggest violator of this law are the government’s own departments. Toilets of train carriages of the Indian Railways, for example, drop excreta on tracks, which is manually cleaned by scavengers. The Prime Minister, who pompously declared India to be scavenger free by 2019 as part of his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and spoke of getting a bullet train network in India, could not even indicate a deadline by which the railways would replace all current toilets with bio-toilets.
Why This Apathy?
The lack of political will is evident in the statement of the central government, apparently in response to the SKA’s Bhim Yatra, on 19 April that it could not receive data from the states and would directly survey the incidence of manual scavenging in the country. It does not require much intelligence to surmise that this survey would buy the government another decade to wear out the struggling safai karmacharis. But why should the government that dreams of playing a leading role in world affairs choose to live with such abiding shame? It is not a very difficult question. Political will in India is informed by electoral logic. The minuscule community of the scavengers is hopelessly fragmented, ghettoised at every locale, detached from not only the larger society but even the Dalit community. Unto itself, the community is insignificant in the electoral schema of any political party. The only deterrence for the ruling classes is that it is a national embarrassment—as untouchability was for early reformers. Like untouchability, the custom of manual scavenging is tied up with the feudal culture, the threatening of which meant incurring displeasure of the majority community.
While understanding the ruling class attitude to the problem is simple, more intriguing is the apathy of the Dalit movement towards the manual scavengers. The mainstream Dalit movement has never really taken up the issue of manual scavenging with any seriousness. The pivotal strategy of the Dalit movement has been representation. Ambedkar struggled to get reservation in politics and thereafter instituted it in public employment (education being prerequisite for employment). He expected that the Dalit politicians would protect political interests of the masses from the community and the educated Dalits entering bureaucracy could provide a protective cover for the labouring masses. There was no direct engagement with the material problems of the Dalit masses. It is therefore that reservations became the sole concern of the Dalit movement, which has distanced from issues relating with the labouring Dalits. The middle class that came into existence among Dalits over the last seven decades, virtually got detached from the Dalit masses.
It is revealing that in the Bhim Yatra, while Ambedkar was an imposing presence as an inspiring icon, the “Ambedkarites” were absent. Notable progressive individuals registered their solidarity with the struggle of the poor scavengers but the self-proclaimed Ambedkarites were conspicuous by their absence.
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