Scavengers bow out, but face social boycott and denial (Feature)August 31st, 2008 - 1:54 pm ICT by IANS
New Delhi, Aug 30 (IANS) Lali Bai, a woman in her mid thirties, of Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh, woke up at the crack of dawn each morning for nearly two decades and left home for work. She was a manual scavenger. With just a bamboo basket and broom, she cleaned thirty dry toilets daily.”It was awful, bringing the soiled, soggy empty basket back into the house. My skin got infected, I lost a lot of hair, I even suffered from Tuberculosis (TB), because of that filthy work!” Lali said with disgust.
Several women like her across Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh who chose to stop the practice faced social boycott and could not avail of rehabilitation services from the government because of conflicting laws.
Here’s why - on one hand is a law, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry (non-flush) Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993, which deems manual scavenging an offence. On the other is the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SESRMS) 2007, which provides rehabilitation services to scavengers and their families via educational and employment loans etc.
To avail of the scheme however, most scavengers were made to sign an undertaking saying they have stopped work as scavengers. The states have directives to abolish the practice under the 1993 act.
“So in an attempt to abolish the practice of scavenging on paper, scavengers are declared invalid to the SERSMS scheme in practicality,” Ashif Sheikh, Coordinator of Garima Abhiyan, an NGO working for scavenger rights, told IANS.
“Another practical anomaly is that the scheme caters to men while according to government statistics - 98 percent of the estimated one million dalit manual scavengers in India are women.” Sheikh added.
Under the scheme Rs.735.6 billion has been allocated to rehabilitate the scavenging community and wipe off the practice of manual scavenging in India.
“In order to help us see through our poverty and discrimination, our children are encouraged to attend school through scholarships and now that we make use of the act and withdraw from the practice - almost as a punitive measure we are forced to withdraw our children from school!” complained Kiran Bai, a manual scavenger from Dewas district.
“Children would often come back from school complaining of taunts and sarcasm from other children and teachers who would constantly remind them that their mother goes for scavenging work,” said an overwhelmed Shobha, Kiran’s neighbour who is also a manual scavenger.
Madhu Bharwe was twelve when she married into a scavenging community in Sarjapur district, Madhya Pradesh. She had no clue about the work she would be expected to carry out for the next twenty years.
Bharwe told IANS: “The wages were pathetic - a mere Rs.10 a day. On some days my clothes would get soiled with the stinky waste - the stench was nauseating - women from higher castes would throw a sari at my face with disgust. The food they offered was stale. Today if you offer me a thousand rupees I wouldn’t do it!”
She now earns Rs.40 a day working in a farm and is the sole breadwinner for her household of seven.
Women scavengers from various states came to New Delhi last week for a meeting with the National Human Right’s Commission, to decry scavenging practices. Many of them are still engaged in manual scavenging. They are determined to break the bondage and aspire for a respectful source of income and living.
“Our ancestors carried the latrines and we were forced to do the same. We want a life with respect and dignity now,” the women unanimously demanded.
State governments made presentations to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the status of eradication of scavenging. The complaints and grievances of scavengers remain unaddressed as state governments deny that manual scavenging is still practised.
“These presentations were marked by a cross cutting focus on destruction of dry latrines and rehabilitation of people involved in manual scavenging. Gujarat’s presentation focused completely on rehabilitation and did not talk about any existing practice,” said an NHRC official.
“Individual cases would be taken into consideration and recommendations emerging from the presentations made today will be shared soon by NHRC,” said the official.
“The implementation is weak as there is sheer lack of political will towards its eradication,” added Sheikh.