When or if at all the government will introduce the long awaited new bill on the emancipation of manual scavengers in Parliament is anybody’s guess. Despite promises to the Supreme Court earlier this year to introduce the bill in the Monsoon session (which began on 8 August), the Parliament's agenda remains makes no mention of it.
The existing law - The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 – in the 19 years that it has been in force has not seen a single conviction. Given the government’s shameful record in enforcing the law against manual scavenging, being at times itself a violator (the Indian Railways continues to hire manual scavengers), will another law make any difference?
Firstpost spoke to the indefatigable Wilson Bezwada, founder and national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, dedicated to eradicating manual scavenging in India, on the role of laws in this movement and why the government cannot be wished away.
Since the passing of the Manual scavenging Act, 1993, what progress has there been?
The Manual Scavenging Act, 1993, has existed for the last 19 years. So far, there has been no prosecution, no FIRs, no punishment, no public awareness about the Act. Of 625 districts, we have district collectors (DCs) from 278 districts. The women safai karamcharis (manual scavengers) asked the DC to implement this Act. It is the responsibility of the district administration to go to the safai karamcharis and inform them about rehabilitation and so on. Instead, the women are going to DC and asking them to take action. They are not even aware of the Act. These are DCs, I’m talking about.
The public’s attitude is, ‘We are paying more money and scavengers are not cleaning properly”. But the safai karamchari community has decided to come out it. They are burning their baskets in front of the DCs office. They want to come out it, but there is no response from the administration.
There are no figures on manual scavengers in India. So in 2010, we proposed that a national survey of safai karamacharis be conducted. The government agreed and announced that within three months the survey would be completed. In January 2011, they took the decision and in April they formulated the modalities and so on. Till now, they have not started the survey. And now, the idea has been dropped.
Then there was a second bill for septic tank and sewerage workers that the Ministry of Labour came up with. I was a member of the committee. That bill has been pending with the ministry for the past two years. It has not been tabled in Parliament or discussed. Now in 2012 they have come up with a new bill.
What are some of your observations about the new bill (The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012)?
This 2012 bill allows the Indian Railways (if they use safety gear and maintain toilets well) to decide when they want to issue the notification on implementing the Act in the Indian Railways. It should be for the Parliament to decide when the Act should be implemented, not left to the perpetrator. Here, you are allowing the perpetrator to decide when he wants to be punished? That never happens. This is there in the bill.
Rehabilitation has been included. But, the law doesn’t say who is responsible for the rehabilitation. And if there is no rehabilitation, who will be held responsible? The law must say, for example, that within 30 days rehabilitation has to be provided and if that is not done, it should be the responsibility of the district collector to give compensation until the time of rehabilitation.
Despite the abysmal record of implementing the ban on manual scavenging, your movement has always focused on the need for legal provisions.
You see, because there is an Act, we can say it is illegal. If it is not illegal, on the basis of moral and cultural reasons, we cannot really eradicate or talk about untouchability. This problem is linked with untouchability. Therefore, you need a strong law that prohibits it. Only then can you challenge the practice, it cannot be done on the grounds of charity or favour. It is the duty of the public servant to implement the law.
Law makes it very clear what is illegal. People may say what can laws do, but the same people want traffic signals. But for others - the discriminated community - who is going to safeguard their rights. If it is up to individuals to safeguard, the credit then goes to individuals. The credit must go to the state, that is how the democracy will get strengthened. It is a people’s democracy. That is most important.
We could ask private corporations to fund the struggle and with enough donations the matter will closed. But the people’s gratitude should be directed at the state because we are part of the state. The state polity, democracy should get strengthened. People must feel that they have a right to demand their rights in this independent country. That is what safai karamchari women are doing now. The women have chosen their way, they have thrown their baskets. That is their livelihood and yet they have abandoned it. That is level of courage they have shown. But there is no one is support them. We need laws, public support, participation by civil society, overall support of the government, and the media support. How will we achieve otherwise?
This is everybody’s problem. Not the safai karamcharis alone. One human being carrying the shit of another on their head is not the problem of that woman alone. The people who live in that city, everybody, accountable for that. We must feel ashamed.
The government has consistently delayed the process.
The government set deadlines 15 times. All deadlines are dead now.
What is your priority now?
We hope to build pressure on the government. We cannot lose hope. Am I not a part of the government? When I cast my vote, I become a part of the government. I have a right to demand my rights. To dream is my responsibility. Whether others fulfill it or not is another matter. In many states, we have achieved success. So that is our dream. No human being should clean anothers shit by hand. That is the society we are hoping for. And that is not so far.
The problem is the government has become the hurdle. That is the irony. The safai karamchari women are waiting with empty stomachs. The treasury is full of money. So how do you bridge this gap. That is challenge. We fight, fight, fight till we get our victory. People say deadlines have been crossed. But it is okay. People say you lost. But it is not a game of winning or losing. As long as we are fighting, we are still in the game. You can’t declare that we have lost. Still, we are struggling.