By Bhavini Srivastava
The goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to eliminate open defecation from India by constructing public and community toilets. However, the deplorable truth is that little has been done to improve the abysmal condition of manual scavengers.
The International Labour Organisation recognises the rampant existence of manual scavenging at dry latrines, septic tanks and sewers. An NGO, Human Rights Watch, reports that it is the most prevalent menace in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. However, our government has turned a blind eye to the anguish of people at the grass root level.
A state-sponsored peril
States often orchestrate this feudalism and fail to acknowledge the fact that these sewers and tanks are cleaned by poor Dalits who are struggling economically. Instead of implementing methods of eradication, the central government has, in fact, recognised the work of manual scavengers by enlisting them under the ‘unorganised sector’ in the National Career Services portal. Indirectly, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has endorsed the hiring of manual scavengers.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan fosters manual scavenging and has nullified laws, court orders and efforts of activists. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 entrusts responsibility on the local authority, cantonment board and railways to survey unsanitary latrines within its jurisdiction and construct sanitary community latrines.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan and its plan of action
According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a Delhi-based organisation which has been fighting for the rights of manual scavengers for over two decades, there have been 1,268 recorded deaths of manual scavengers while cleaning open sewers in the past two years.
SKA’s convenor, Bezwada Wilson, was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award last year for his tireless crusade in eradicating the blight of manual scavenging. “Even the government is indirectly engaging scavengers for cleaning community dry latrines, railway tracks, government hospitals,” he rues woefully. In the pivotal 2014 Safai Karamchari Andolan vs. Union of India case, the Supreme Court ordered the abolishment of manual scavenging and asked for the implementation of rehabilitation of such workers.
Hazards of manual scavenging
The ground reality is that no protective gear is given and the scavengers are in no position, economically and socially to bargain for such rights. Several cleaners fall unconscious and even lose their lives due to inhalation of emanating poisonous gas from the excreta but their deaths go unrecorded. Other risks undertaken are nausea, skin diseases, anaemia, diarrhoea, vomiting, jaundice and trachoma. Women also face the brunt as they carry the human excreta in uncovered baskets on their heads to the disposal sites.
Where does the problem lie?
Manual scavenging stems from the customary social and economic exploitation of Dalits due to the entrenched age-old system of casteism in the Indian society. It is a caste-based job, rampantly practised to ostracise people belonging to the lower strata of the hierarchy in the caste system.
What went amiss with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was that it failed to strike at the festering problem of waste disposal and drainage system because of which the need for manual scavenging arises in the first place. The concerted focus should be on effective solid waste management and to build sewage treatment plants. However, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seems to be undertaking no such measures to eliminate this profession of manual scavenging.
Featured Image Credits: Dailymail
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