Ideas of dignity, however novel or noble, are insincere if they don't turn into everyday practice.
Political posturing through symbolic gestures — like Prime Minister Narendra Modi washing the feet of sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj — are futile exercises because manual scavenging has already been established as a social evil and even banned. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, disallows the employment of manual scavengers and makes it a non-bailable offence. Under this legislation, offenders can face up to five years of imprisonment, and India and its biggest leaders needn't draw attention to the necessity of attaching dignity to the profession.
Instead, they should enable those still in the profession to work with dignity. What is expected of them is effective, implementable and scalable solutions to end practices that lurk deep inside septic tanks, deep under manholes and in all those dark and dangerous corners that are invisible by design.
Last week, the day the Delhi Budget was announced in the Assembly, the Aam Aadmi Party government launched 200 sewer cleaning trucks — each of which cost nearly Rs 35 lakh — in the city in a bid to do away with the practice of manual scavenging. Although Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did invoke Ambedkar at the launch and re-asserted his government's commitment towards eradicating manual scavenging, this scheme is solely the brainchild of Delhi's minister for social welfare, SC/ST and water, Rajendra Pal Gautam.
Bhupesh Kumar, the superintendent engineer who oversaw the scheme in which the Delhi Jal Board didn't invest a dime to procure the machines, told Firstpost: "The contracts to buy and run the machines were given to families of manual scavengers and on priority to those who have lost a member of their family to the hazardous occupation. We adopted a one-man-one-machine approach while handing out the contracts to turn the manual scavengers into entrepreneurs,."
After the scheme's subaltern leaning was questioned, Kumar, who oversaw the designs submitted, rectified errors and regularly inspected the prototypes, explained the emphasis the Delhi Jal Board had laid on empowering these families instead of inviting bids from one or two key players.
Metro Waste Handling Pvt Ltd had filed a petition in the Delhi High Court challenging the eligibility conditions and the system of preferences prescribed by the Delhi Jal Board in the tender issued in March 2018. The petitioner had specifically challenged the condition of awarding only one vehicle under the Notice Inviting Tender to each bidder, asserting that this would render redundant its acquired infrastructure and investments made and would also affect its 600 employees. The high court bench of Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice AK Chawla had ruled in favour of the jal board, observing that the Delhi government's move "affords an opportunity to an utterly marginalised section a step up with the other citizens".
There are three technical aspects to the sewer cleaning machines: jetting, grabbing and rodding. Jetting is the use of an imported pipe and a conical nozzle that uses water pressure to clear choked sewer lines. Grabbing is an automatic hydraulic system that makes use of two buckets that expand as they are lowered into sewer waste lines and contract as they are pulled back up where the waste is collected in a hopper (container). Rodding is used to cut jute and polythene using steel rods.
"Normally, when sewers are cleaned, the silt is removed and kept outside the manhole. These machines will collect the waste and neatly dispose it far away," Kumar said, adding that innovation was much-needed in mechanisation.
While technical know-how was a major challenge in implementing the scheme, the other was financing the families of manual scavengers who struggle to make ends meet. Under the NDA government's Stand Up India scheme, the State Bank of India sanctioned loans to acquire these sewer cleaning machines. The government is the guarantor in such loans. Kumar said that if the family running the machine can meet the daily target of cleaning up 200 metres of sewer lines, it can earn nearly Rs 2 lakh every month and return Rs 80,000 to the bank.
Ravi Kumar Narra of the Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industries worked in close coordination with the Delhi Jal Board and a community-led organisation called the Safai Mazdoor Sangh, run by former Delhi Development Authority commissioner Satya Prakash Rai. The organisation is not a registered NGO but has been working on rehabilitation of families who lost members to tragic incidents in septic tanks over the past couple of years in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar, Vasant Kunj and Ghitorni.
"The families of the deceased were given first preference; the second was given to children whose parents are sanitation workers; the third preference was given to Dalits and the fourth to other communities," Narra said. "Nearly 225 pitches were made for the tender that was finally given to 200 bidders."
He added that a similar caste-based project was adopted by the Hyderabad government, but it wasn't as bold as this one is in acknowledging that manual scavenging is still only about one single caste. Narra said municipalities across India can replicate this model.
Mukesh Virat, a member of the Valmiki Samaj that engages in manual scavenging, is one of the beneficiaries of Delhi's new sewer cleaning scheme. He stressed that political will alone didn't make this happen, and that it was the close coordination between civil society, technicians in the jal board and a solutions-oriented attitude of people within the system that enabled it.
"Whether it succeeds or fails is a different thing. At least we are focusing on solutions instead of repeating the problem again and again. Any community will welcome such a move," he said, urging leaders of parties to stop playing politics over the misery of manual scavengers.
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