By Deepak Jha
To meet the expense of his family’s evening meal, he is still waiting for the work to come his way. It’s already 11 in the morning and he has waited for three hours in sun. If nothing comes his way in next two hours, he will have to seek something else otherwise his family who lives in a small hutment a mile away have to sleep with an empty stomach. He sighted a babu coming his way suddenly and he is elated. He finalized the deal for some 300 rupees and goes behind him always keeping a distance. Walking some 100 steps, babu stops and directs him to a dirty manhole with stinking filth coming out, blocking the entire pavement. He inspects for a moment and removes his clothes except for a small piece covering his groin. He lands himself into the literally black water with all kinds of waste including human’s filth and soon he is neck deep into it, cleaning the blockage somewhere deep with his bare hands and legs. The water recedes but something again clogged somewhere into the sewer. He gently scrolls down to clean the further blockade. He is completely covered in faecal and putrid matter but keen to finish his job. But as he drives further down, his eyes begins to roll and starts gasping for breath. He tries to come out but faints in the midway. The suffocation and the toxic gases kill him finally.
We are talking of smart cities today, but we don’t talk about the number of deaths taking place in big cities due to manual scavenging. We are talking about ‘Clean India program’ but we are quite skeptical and ignorant about the plight of real cleaners. The above story just represents how nearly 22000 people indulged in manual sewer cleaning dies due to suffocation and toxic gases every year. Those who escape deaths get infected with sanitation and hygiene related diseases.
The manual scavenging got banned in India way back in 1993, but the law remained largely on the paper and no conviction was ascertained in 20 years. In 2013, THE PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT AS MANUAL SCAVENGERS AND THEIR REHABILIATION ACT was passed seeing the ineffectiveness of the 1993 law. Even after the new law which instructs the prohibition of any such employment without the protective equipment and sanitation methodologies, the practice of manual scavenging remains unabated in the major cities across India, thus violating the law. The apex court has also criminalized working in sewer lines without safety gears. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution talks about the right to life, but interestingly there are hardly such rights for the scavengers who become victims of the lethal gases under the sewer and the septic tanks. This is a massive human rights issue. Further harassment is that when the death ocuurs, the authorities are reluctant to file FIR and when they do they introduce "death due to negligence" which doesn't come under the SC/ST acts which has punitive measures.
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has ensured that toilets are built all over the country but the necessary sewage system or the right appliances to clean the man holes/septic tank doesn’t exist. The UPA government built nearly 5 crore 40 lakh toilet in their regime but due to insufficient funds, the toilets built were of poor quality. The similar is the case with the new flagship program of NDA. In that case, it leads to employing more and more scavengers to clean. Another issue is the existence of dry latrines which are nothing but a structure representing inhuman caste system. The scavengers belong to the dalit or extremely backward community or “Untouchables”, the practice of untouchability exists even today.
The Safai Karmchari Andolan(SFA) has repeatedly called for several agitations since 1982, but nothing concrete has been done in this regard. The government repeatedly has given deadlines to end this de-humanising practice, first in 1995, then in 2000, then in 2003, 2007 and then 2012, but the plight remains same. In the process, the government has shown the hideous attitude as far as declaring the number of such workers in India. SFA has been continuously exposing the data government gives. According to SFA, there are 1.3 million manual scavengers in India.
Supreme court on writ petition of Safai Karmchari Andolan releases an order which had below highlights:
The Bhim Yatra as they call it is a countrywide ongoing mobile protest march where the manual scavengers have on boarded an orange colored bus which will encircle 500 cities in 30 states in a 125 day drive. This started on 10th December 2015(Human Rights Day) and finished on 16th April 2016, which happened to be the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar. The message is simple yet hard hitting : "Stop Killing Us!". All it wants to make the people and government aware of its demands of human dignity.
The manual scavenging continues to be a national shame with someone dying somewhere deep underground. Compensation doesn't help, but a proper rehabilitation will do. A foul tradition which is many hundred years old is not supposed to end anytime soon. Even a stringent law has failed to curb the malpractice. A mass awareness could open the eye's of government as well as the society, that is what Bhim Yatra is trying to achieve.