Inhuman bondage: 1.3 million manual scavengers exist in India despite ban

July 27th, 2009 - 2:32 pm ICT by IANS  

By Darshan Desai
New Delhi, July 27 (IANS) It is an inhuman practice that India banned 16 years ago. But manual scavenging, or cleaning human excreta with the hands, still exists and by the government’s own admission it is late by two years in completely eradicating it.

Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Mukul Wasnik admitted in the Rajya Sabha that manual scavenging should have been eradicated two years ago, but now the target had been fixed for March 2010.

As on date, there are at least 115,000 manual scavengers, who are also considered untouchable or Dalits, identified for benefits under a 2007 self-employment rehabilitation scheme for them being implemented by the social justice and empowerment ministry.

But these are only government figures. “This figure is fictitious,” says Bezwada Wilson, convenor of the Planning Commission’s sub-group on ’safai karmacharis’ (sweepers), adding there has been no proper national survey so far of their number.

“From our four-year-old survey in nine states, our conclusion is that there are at least 1.3 million manual scavengers in the country,” Wilson told IANS. And now he has initiated a survey of 252 districts in 12 states.

It was a petition by Wilson’s organisation, Safai Karamchari Andolan, in the Supreme Court in 2003 which forced the state governments to start some action in 2007.

Way back in 1993, the government enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act providing for imprisonment up to one year and a fine of Rs.2,000 or both.

Ironically, as sources pointed out, there are still many municipalities in the country which run dry toilets.

Wilson said: “Not only do the civic bodies run them, the government does not even know for sure just how many dry latrines are there in the country. Without which all figures are useless. If you know how many dry toilets are there, you will know how many scavengers carry excreta from there.”

Nobody running such toilets has been punished under the 1993 Act so far. Further, 16 manual scavengers have recently been issued notices under the law by a local municipality in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district seeking their explanation on carrying excreta.

Wilson pointed out: “The biggest violator of the law is Indian Railways, which the government does not even factor in when they tell you how many people are into this work.”

Karnataka passed a law way back in the 1970s and, according to figures provided by Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment D. Napolean, the state had only 10 scavengers in this year who had now been rehabilitated.

When the rehabilitation scheme was announced in January 2007, there were 324,000 scavengers in the country, according to official figures. The government says that the maximum number of human excreta carriers, 16,386, are in Orissa, followed by 15,352 in Bihar, 15,213 in Madhya Pradesh, 13,320 Maharashtra and 11,896 in Tamil Nadu.

After 30 in Puducherry and 10 in Karnataka having been rehabilitated, the least number of manual scavengers, 232, are in Jammu and Kashmir.

National capital Delhi has as many as 1,085 of them, while other states with four digit figures include Uttar Pradesh 9,426, Gujarat 8,740, West Bengal 6,708 and Jharkhand 5,750.

The funds for their rehabilitation have been almost tripled from Rs.1.36 crore (Rs.13.6 million) in 2007-08 to Rs. 3.43 crore (Rs.34.3 mn) now.

Ironically, 11 out of the 18 states, which the government lists as having manual scavengers, had in their affidavits in the Supreme Court claimed they did not have a single one and the practice had been eradicated.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan claims that these states profess something else in the apex court, but to the government they report having scavengers to get the funds for eradicating the inhuman practice.

(Darshan Desai can be contacted at darshan.d@ians.in)

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