With the government and most of the political opposition turning a blind eye to their issues, members of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA, or Sanitation Workers’ Movement) released their manifesto ahead of the Lok Sabha elections 2019.
The document makes specific and salient demands for their liberation from this dangerous occupation—their rehabilitation and equal access to education and health. Most importantly, it demands the “recovery, reconstruction and reclamation” of their fundamental right to live with dignity.
A historic first, SKA’s document lists key concerns of India’s manual scavenging community, including an end to caste-based job distribution and patriarchal constructs which make it difficult to break free of these shackles. More than 90% of latrine cleaners are women, and all sanitation workers are Dalits, the lowest rung of India’s caste system.
Also read: A historical gash called caste
Sanitation workers ask govt to clean up their act
On April 4, Bezwada Wilson, who is a Ramon Magsaysay award winner and the head of SKA, one of the largest organisations campaigning for the abolishment of manual scavenging in India, unveiled the manifesto at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi.
“This is the biggest moment in our history. This is the first time, we, the manual scavengers, are releasing our manifesto. We do not want a government that does not care about us. These are our demands, and we are not requesting the people in power to meet them, we are ordering them,” Wilson said adding, sanitation workers, scores of whom die each year from asphyxiation while removing waste from underground drains, have had enough.
Deepthi Sukumar, National Convenor of SKA, said, “Even after seeing our plight, all the governments, both Centre and state, chose to remain silent, and especially the Prime Minister. As long as we are being forced into manual scavenging, to risk our lives for this dangerous occupation, just because of our castes, this country cannot be considered a democracy.”
“This manifesto lists what we want, how we envision our democracy to be. We will send this to all the political parties. They can come into power only if they are ready to meet all our demands,” she added.
Charter of demands: a historic first
The manifesto reads, “We are deeply worried that Manuvadi, unscientific, irrational and fundamentalist forces are hijacking agenda of people—untouchability, hunger, poverty, gender violence, and unemployment deliberately thrown out of political discourse. This trend is posing a serious threat to our constitutional values.”
The manifesto has demanded that all sanitation workers and their dependants be issued a Right to Life-21 (RL-21) card to ensure direct and free access to education, health care, dignified employment, and livelihood, as well as other benefits, schemes, and fundamental rights available to all citizens of India under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
It has notably demanded that 1% of the Union budget be exclusively allocated for the welfare of manual scavengers, including their liberation and rehabilitation benefits, and a separate ministry for their release and rehabilitation headed by the Prime Minister. The SKA has also demanded a separate parliamentary session on manual scavenging deaths and rehabilitation efforts.
Other demands include pension of Rs 6,000 per month to all safai karmachari men and women who are above 55 years of age, direct access with free admission for their children using the RL-21 card into any institution and hostels (government, aided, private, and foreign institutions) of their choice from primary to the highest level of the education.
Direct and free access to any hospital (government or private) of their choice by using the RL-21 card for all their medical needs including the most specialised medical intervention. It has also demanded free water and sanitation facilities for every safai karmachari household.
Why is this just as much a poll issue as employment?
Despite efforts being made by several state governments to come up with innovative technological solutions for human waste management and disposal, there are about 1.8 lakh households across India still engaged in manual scavenging, according to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011, with Maharashtra accounting for most of them, at a count of 63,713 households.
India reiterated the ban on manual scavenging in 2013 with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, which recognised a constitutional obligation to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by manual scavenging communities by providing alternate livelihoods and other assistance.
After the 2013 Act came into being, the government recognised 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states with 82% in Uttar Pradesh. Activists, politicians, and even the Supreme Court have said that this number is a gross under representation.
While government estimates peg the number of manual scavengers between 14,000 and 31,000, the SKA says the figure is closer to 770,000, with nearly 1,800 sewer cleaners asphyxiating to death in the last decade.
In fact, a study conducted by Dalberg Advisors reported that there were almost five million people engaged as ‘sanitation workers’ across India, and that their jobs could be broadly classified into nine different types of manual scavenging. The study further recommended that any formal definition of ‘manual scavenging’, should take into account this spectrum of occupations. Of the nine engagements, the government presently only recognises four of these occupations under ‘manual scavenging’ and even for that, the data reporting is poor.
The SKA charter of demands, highlights the Centre’s failure in eradicating manual scavenging by 2019 as promised in BJP’s 2014 manifesto. The Modi government has done nothing for us, says Wilson who launched a hashtag campaign #StopKillingUs, asking the government to help sanitation workers find dignified jobs.
While deaths in sewers continue to rise, the Centre, however, does not lack in empty symbolic gestures. In February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited five sanitation workers, washed their feet with his hands in full view of the press, in a gesture to honour the staff who clean toilets at the Kumbh Mela.
In 2017, the UN also criticised the prevalence of caste-based manual scavenging in India, that continued to exist under the Swachh Bharat mission. The special rapporteur emphasised on the need for behaviour change and sufficient water supply, to ensure that the initiative to build toilets and eliminate open defecation in the country, did not violate the human rights of those belonging to the lower castes. India rejected the UN’s criticism as ‘factually incorrect’.
Why this matters
While the erstwhile UPA government failed to decisively put an end to the inhuman practice of any form of manual cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling of human waste, the NDA government, after coming to power, failed to implement the necessary preventive measures for the 2013 Act to become operative.
The plight of India’s manual scavengers today acts as a perfect illustration for the Modi’s government’s failed promises and schemes. The number of casualties of Swachh Bharat or Clean India Mission undercuts the glowing reports of the cleanliness drive, leaving behind a legacy of suffocation and stigma in reality. In fact, studies have found that the Swachh Bharat mission has, at times, reinforced caste-based discrimination through its operational systems.
The government’s failure to strictly enforce the anti-manual scavenging law has kept the practice prevalent throughout India. Even urban municipal corporations hire men and women for this work, both directly and through contractors. It is clear, therefore, that building 90 million new toilets and ending open defecation is not going to automatically end the age-old practice.
Nonetheless, the issue finds brief mention in Congress’ manifesto for the upcoming elections, where it promises to end the prevalence of manual scavenging in three years. However, the issues of the people’s rehabilitation and social security is where the proof of the pudding, arguably, lies.
On the other hand, the CPI manifesto does touch upon the need for their rehabilitation.
In the coming times, we hope to see the regularisation of the cleaning workforce in urban areas, with proper occupational safety and social protections in place. The use of technology to restore human dignity is yet another option; for instance, designed by Kerala-based start-up Genrobotics, Bandicoot is a cost-effective tech solution that not only does the clean-up job faster—in 20-45 minutes—but also reduces the risk of manhole accidents and health hazards, which manual scavengers face daily.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.