Indignity in Swachh Bharat


by Subhabrata Dutta


After close to 68 years of Independence, manual scavenging persists as a disgraceful reality in different states of the country. In the context of the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), the problem calls for urgent attention both of civil society and the government. In a word, the country needs to wake up to this indignity.


A photograph published in The Statesman on 13 November 2014 indicates that manual scavenging of human excreta is still prevalent in Gujarat. Yet it is not a uniquely Gujarat phenomenon. Many other states are no less culpable. Such instances have been reported from the country's capital as well.


According to the Census data of 2011, India has 26,06,278 dry latrines and there are 7,94,390 identified manual scavengers to remove human excreta. Scavenging involves the sweeping of dirt, cleaning latrines, septic tanks, drains, carrying of corpses etc. The most obnoxious part of this job is the cleaning of human excreta and then carrying it on the head for disposal in a distant corner.


The task is performed by different castes and communities. In northern India, they are called Methar, Bhangi, Valmiki (Dalit Hindu community), and Helal Khor (Dalit Muslim community). In South India, they are referred to as Thoti, Madi etc. The common strand is that these segments of the populace belong to Dalit communities. All over India, this practice has been a traditional and ancestral occupation among Dalits, one that is inherited by one generation from another. This traditional legacy of sorts has been variously described as Jajmani, Jagirdari, Dastoori etc. Manual scavenging is the hereditary occupation of certain castes that are poor and belong to the lowest rung of society. They are paid a pittance for the dirty work and literally so Sometimes the wages are offered in kind foodgrain, clothes, gifts etc. The exploitation serves the purpose of the upper castes. As often as not, refusal is countered with atrocities. In this strategy of violence, the upper castes ensure the permanent slavery and subjugation of lower castes.


The ordeal of the manual scavengers does not end here. The majority of this class group are employed as casual or temporary workers by local rural and urban governing bodies, the Railways, the medical colleges and hospitals, and police stations. Inherent is the insecurity of service, bereft of post-retirement benefits.


The manual scavengers suffer from a variety of ailments skin disease, lung infection, anaemia, breathing problems and so on. The infections can affect both women and their children.


The manual scavengers are also the victims of untouchability because of the social stigma associated with their jobs. Their children are even discriminated against in school. They are forced to live in separate settlements or ‘shanty towns’ or bastis. They are looked down upon with disdain and regarded as inferior creatures by the upper castes. Field studies have highlighted the social evil and the attendant humiliation. Mulk Raj Anand’s novel, Untouchable (1935), provides a graphic example of this social malaise.


And central to the malaise is the caste system. Going by the conventional wisdom of the upper castes, such tasks as the cleaning of dry latrines, carrying of excreta on the head, cleaning of septic tanks and drains, carting of bodies of human beings and animals, and sweeping of roads must be carried out by the lower castes. It is almost as if this has been pre-ordained by the upper castes.


The economic insecurity of the lower castes forces them to accept the job of sweeping and scavenging as the only source of livelihood. Again, among the manual scavengers, a patriarchal mindset operates. The bulk of the work is done by women, reaffirming the process of feminization and gender inequality in the task of manual scavenging .


Poverty, privation and exploitation are the stark challenges that confront the scavengers. Subaltern studies have established a link between castes, poverty, exploitation and marginalisation. In an effort to address this sub-human practice, a piece of legislation was formulated in 1993, specifically the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Bill. Another Bill called the “National Commission for Safai Karmacharis Bill, 1993" was also enacted. It is a bitter irony that the practice continues even after the enactment of legislation.


The abolition of manual scavenging depends mainly on the economic rehabilitation of the scavengers and the complete conversion of dry latrines into water-flushed toilets. For the economic rehabilitation of the distressed, the "National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents" was undertaken in 1992. The nodal agency of the scheme at the State level was the Scheduled Castes Development Corporation. The National Scheduled Castes and Schedules Tribes Finance and Development Corporation (NSFDC) was authorised to supervise the implementation of the schemes. Training programmes were arranged for the scavengers under the programme called "Rural Youth for Self-Employment". Financial assistance was also provided. But the progress of the rehabilitation programme was not satisfactory and there was a gradual decline since 1994.


To promote education within this class group, the Centre had introduced in 1977-78, the "pre-Matric scholarship for the children of those engaged in unclean occupations”. Other government initiatives for the improvement of Safai Karmacharis, were the "National Commission for Safai Karmacharis” (1994) and the "National Safai Karmacharis Finance and Development Corporation" (1997).


Despite appropriate legislation and welfare measures, there has been no decline in the inhuman practice. The manual scavengers continue to languish judging by the vital parameters of their economic condition and opportunities. They have to contend with a disadvantage in terms of education, housing, employment, let alone social discrimination, harassment and cruelties. A strong political will is essential to address this social malaise. Members of Dalit communities do occupy positions of power, but there has been no change in the condition of manual scavengers. Arguably, the system cannot be abolished in a caste-based society. But a fairly modest beginning has been made and it may take some decades for the schemes on the anvil to attain fruition. Fundamentally, it calls for a change of attitude. Only then can the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan be meaningful.





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