Can the Indian Railways stop asking others to clean its shit?

The Supreme Court expressing concern over the inordinate delay in passing a new Bill to abolish manual scavenging in India early this week exposes yet another instance of our governments and politicians turning their back on the most downtrodden people of our country.

That the SC had to ask the Centre to give a “proper reply” on the issue, that too based on a 2011 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which was prompted by the death of 19 manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, amplifies the seriousness of the issue.

Since the filing of the PIL, the parliament convened three times, but the Bill (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012) went unpassed.

Outlawed many years ago, India continues to practice this vulgarity. AFP

The disregard of our establishment to the issue, that makes our country look like a shit-hole to the rest of the world, is not new: manual scavenging has been banned in India by law for 19 years now, but the country cannot live without this vulgarity. It wants people to continue cleaning and carrying their crap - often on their heads - and sink into blocked sewers in the middle of public roads.

Given the obvious apathy, it is hardly surprising that the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act - 1993, which was meant to abolish the practice, has completely failed as most of the state governments more or less ignored it for years. For the Act to work, it had to be ratified by the states and the latter ensured that it had a slow death.

Not that the Centre is less responsible in this conspiracy of inaction - even after passing the 1993 Act, it let the Indian Railways be the biggest violator.

If the pressure from the SC ensures that the Centre delivers on its current promise, the new Bill, will have more teeth. The Attorney General has reportedly informed the Court that the government would link the Bill to Article 21 of the Constitution and use “entry 97” of the Central List, to ensure that it would be binding on the states.

Thanks to this innovation, unlike the 1993 Act, the Bill, once passed wouldn’t need to be ratified separately by the state legislatures to be law in each state. In other words, a single law will cover the entire country. On issues listed in the State List, any central Act needs to be passed by the state assemblies, which they can easily choose to avoid. Means, a central Act, however high-sounding it is, can mean nothing in a state if the latter doesn’t recognise it.

The Bill presented in the parliament in September 2012 is now with the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment. Once passed, it will make manual scavenging illegal, and hence anybody who employs manual scavengers, or who constructs or uses insanitary latrines, can be punished by imprisonment and fine.

Needless to say, if it doesn’t change its ways, the Indian Railways, which shamelessly continues the practice of insanitary toilets and letting the crap to slip to railway tracks, will be the biggest violator. Railways also has manual scavengers cleaning up the pools of human excreta at big railway stations.

The 2012 Bill provides for higher punishment compared to the 1993 Act - the one year jail term and Rs. 2000 fine under the old Act has been raised to two years of jail and Rs. 200, 000 of fine respectively. You can read the highlights of the Bill here.

However, as in the case of many other pieces of legislation, the new Act is unlikely to end the inhuman practice because it is deeply embedded in the social inequality and caste system of India. In fact, the apathy of the political class to the issue itself arises from this inequality.

Manual scavenging, historically has been done mostly by the Dalits and some estimates say that more than 1.3 million Dalits are bonded to this horrendous vocation. This is a vestige of the old social order which nobody wants to change.

Besides being a symbol of historic oppression, it also shows that a large number of Dalits do not have other choices of livelihood. In many parts of the country, including cities such as Chennai, people have no qualms in employing the scavengers to clean their septic tanks and clogged sewers.

The efforts to rehabilitate manual scavengers have met with the same apathy in implementing the 1993 Act. In an article in March 2012, the Hindu noted how Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) 2007 is grossly subverted. Reporting from a national public hearing on the issue, the article said 51 per cent of the assistance under the SRMS in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan went to men whereas almost all the scavengers (98 per cent) were women.

Additionally, three-fourth of the people who got the money had nothing to do with scavenging at all. The intended beneficiaries did not know about the schemes and the money due to them. About two-third of the beneficiaries were “taken for a ride.”

The public hearing also brought to light the social pressure for the continuance of the practice. In a village in Madhya Pradesh, when a mother stopped scavenging toilets, the scholarship for her son was stopped. On such occasions, even if schemes such as SRMS work well, the scavengers are bonded. The social order will ensure that they have nowhere to go, with or without the law.

The issue is complex and extraordinary and hence will therefore require complex and extraordinary solutions. It has to be epochal and has to be part of a larger social change agenda. Legislation, however intelligent and all-encompassing, will not work unless there is transformative social pressure and political commitment.

The country’s sanitation horrors are mindboggling: about 500-600 million people still clear their bowels in the open and more than half of all the people in the world who defecate in public are Indians. This is not only because of a lack of toilets, but also because of lack of the entire system of sanitation, which includes water, disposal etc.

Even if many of them migrate to toilets, which do not have the rest of the sanitation paraphernalia, who will clean them? That is what many villages and people in towns and cities do in our country - they defecate in “toilets” which are then cleaned by the outcasts. Paying some pittance to them makes more sense than constructing sanitary toilets.

It is a certainly a failure of the governments. Water and sanitation are fundamental to human life.

Evidently, for the avenues of manual scavenging to end, sanitation habits in the country have to dramatically improve and systems have to completely change, which requires massive public investments. The 12th plan talks about Rs. 36,000 crore of investment in sanitation.

In his last avatar, union minister Jairam Ramesh had made the right noises on the issue, which raised signs of hope. He unleashed a campaign against public defecation calling it an “Indian characteristic” and demanded a 40% rise in sanitation-budget. However, ever since his departure, his slogans have disappeared..

It is combination of the country’s caste practice and misplaced sense of priorities that perpetuate this dehumanising practice. The new Bill is no silver bullet because our country is run by the same politicians who keep certain sections of our society outcasts and downtrodden and steal public funds. We need changes more fundamental than what is attempted to ensure that it is not only cutting down the supply of manual scavengers, but completely doing away with the demand as well.

The demand cannot be outlawed, but can only be met with alternatives and social conscience that makes one ashamed of asking a fellow human being to clean one’s crap.

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