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Commentary Last Updated: Jul 28th, 2010 - 11:25:13

Elimination of manual scavenging should be made India�s national priority
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jul 28, 2010, 00:24

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It�s a town sandwiched between two important cities of Uttar-Pradesh namely Allahabad and Kanpur. It is a town which was once represented by a former prime minister in Parliament. Unlike Amethi and Raibarelley, it could not become a VIP town which could have changed its fortune.

Yes, we are talking about Fatehpur, a rural district headquarter in Central Uttar-Pradesh which is just 120 kilometers away from Allahabad city. Yet, the urban Fatehpur and its rural areas still have rampant manual scavenging. Painful thing is that in many villages even children are engaged to do this most inhuman work. It is not just Fatehpur but even the cities like Gorakhpur, Rudrapur, Laar, Mau, Mohammdabad, Kanpur, Lucknow, Musanagar and many other small towns, too, have the scavenging practices. Of course, on the record of the municipalities, it does not exist and they can easily make loud claims that they have already eliminated. Yet, reality is different.

While politically the district may have changed a lot in the past 20 years, one of the major concerns which most of the human rights activists have is the power of the upper caste remain intact and the violence against the Dalits rampant, though not much reported in the media.

Just a year ago, two boys from Balmiki community died while cleaning the safety tank of a toilet owned by a Brahmin. When the gas emerged from the safety tank, both the boys cried yet there was no support provided by the owner of the house and they died. After a few days, the situation came back to normal and resulted in an unfortunate �compromise,� with a few thousand rupees as compensation for the family of the deceased. The compromise was force by various political forces which shows how, despite political change in Uttar-Pradesh, the power politics still remain in the hands of the mighty feudal upper caste elements.

Though the Nagar-Palikas may report the number of manual scavengers as nothing, the fact is that the practice is growing and has been feminized. In 2006, by the government�s own admission there were nearly 676,000 manual scavengers all over the country, but the Safai Karmchari Andolan felt it was over 1.3 million at that time. But the most shocking figures have recently come when the government says that the number of manual scavengers in the country is reduced to just 170,00. The government has admitted its failure as they have not been able to stick to their deadlines to complete this. The question is how are they going to rehabilitate the people in the process? The government may consider it one of the economic activity yet it is a socio-cultural issue too that expose the dirty side of our system.

By its own admission, the government is suggesting that it would completely eliminate the manual scavenging by December 2010. The government talks about municipalities and those related to it but the fact is as unplanned urbanization processes start, the problem of manual scavenging is growing. The fact of the matter is that government agencies have been ruthless in their neglect towards the issues of the community.

Builders eye the Balmiki Bastis

The incidents are common in different parts of the country. If they are living in houses provided to them by a municipality, then they are under the threat as the builders and land mafia often eye those locations which are central to the city. It was the British who were kind enough to provide residential quarters to the community engaged in sanitation work.

After the British left, the municipalities have done little to improve the condition of the people. Instead, most often, these municipalities threaten the communities often and target their houses. The recent example of incident in Karnataka is an eye opener where, because of the fear the community, people protested in the worst form by applying human excreta over their body to stop the demolition of their houses. That was one of the most desperate protests by the community and one only adopted such in deep isolation and helplessness. We only react to those and, therefore, in most other places, the people have been dislocated and none of the political parties ever raises their issue.

Take for example the Howarh municipal corporation case when they dislocated over 7,000 people from Belilius Park in the middle of the city, when an industrialist close to CPM filed a petition in the High Court that the dwellings of the scavenging communities in this area were a threat to the environment and the �honorable� High court gave a decision to dislocate the vast scavenging communities, mostly immigrants, from UP, Bihar, Delhi and Haryana and not a single political party came forward to support them.

Mamta Banerjee, who claims to represent people, never even bothered about them and most of these community people are living in a virtual hell in just a 5,000 square-foot complex with as many as 27 families staying together without any toilet or bathroom facilities. People are living like insects with no air to breathe. How are their children going to study?

In most of the cases, both the parents go to work early morning, around 6, without eating anything while handing over the homes and young children to elder daughters. The children face discrimination at school. Because of the burden at home, most of them are unable to be regular at the school. The teachers remain mostly in caste mind. The boycott of midday meals being cooked by Dalit cooks has been in the news for the past few weeks in Uttar-Pradesh, forcing the state government withdraw the Dalit cooks where the children do not want to eat food being cooked by them. And one can never think that a woman from scavenging community would ever be able to become a cook at a school. It is beyond our imagination whether anyone would eat food cooked by her. And why should government succumb to such nonsense where students refuse to eat her food? The government must not give food to the upper caste children. Let them bring food from their homes and completely bar them from holding any government positions in the future.

Manual scavenging in Uttar-Pradesh

Manual scavenging has not got its due attention from the government and policy makers because of its inherent racist nature. The governments, on the one side, work on papers and provide fictitious figures of development while hounding the community people for their �alleged� violation of the �Elimination of manual scavenging act.�

Uttar-Pradesh government last year went on spree to recruit 100,000 sweepers in the village areas. This resulted in a massive response by even the upper castes applying for the job. For many living in their own world, it was like India�s biggest social change where the caste Hindus applying for sweeper�s work but is it possible for a country to find upper caste sweepers when their arrogant children refuse to eat midday meals cooked by the Dalit cooks? Hence the reality of the upper caste sweepers remained like absentee landlords where the government salary is owned by the person who signs the register and sublets that job to a Balmiki. In fact, during my conversation in a number of Safai-Karmcharis, I found that even if they do not let their job be done to others, the upper castes are carefully not given the sweeping and cleaning their work. So in a majority of Nagar-Palikas if some upper castes or non Swachchakar, non Balmikis have taken a sanitation job, they do not do in the job. They are simply doing office work. So, the appointment is in the name of sweeper while the work of office assistance is being done. The corruption is so high that some of the community took heavy loans from moneylenders to get the job and yet failed to, and now are living in a deeply desperate situation. Many of them sold their small belongings to get this �sarkari� job. Unable to get anything and trapped in the corruption, they force their children into scavenging.

The tragic part in UP is that the Balmiki Vimukti Yojna are not visible at all. Perhaps the government does not think that manual scavenging is prevalent in Uttar-Pradesh. We have the footage of many towns in Uttar-Pradesh where manual scavenging is in practice and the authorities are not able to do anything, except whenever the cases have come to their attention they threaten the people with dire action. One is not surprised that such responses do not result in elimination of scavenging but put the people on alert and, therefore, they do not report to the government. Rehabilitation is an important area where the governments have failed miserably.

Municipalities: The biggest offenders

In Uttar-Pradesh the contract labor has further aggravated the situation and the government and municipal bodies must be taken to task for violating the basic human rights of the people from scavenging communities and for their inability to demand decent working conditions and social security for those who do contract work. The first thing about the contract work is that it does not really fulfill minimum wage criterion and there is no social security, no health insurance for the person. Secondly, in most of the cases, it is being taken over by men as the nagar-Palikas are not appointing families and, in that case, it is the woman who has to face the brunt. Take leave because of illness and the payment gets cut. There are no holidays, no social security and working in such dire conditions makes you sick, yet there is no compensation for your ailment. Contrary to this, the salary gets cut and by the month�s end, the salary accrued is much lower than the person deserved. The pain gets aggravated during national holidays and festivities when the rest of the world celebrates with their children, this community has to forget its own pains and continue the work for a meager amount.

One must understand that for the community the municipal job is ridding it of the filthy work at the private latrines for nothing. So most of them feel that the municipal job gives them social security, as well as better life as sweeping and cleaning streets looks still better than that dehumanizing work that has kept community subjugated for years. But during the past few years, the government has completely put the sanitation services on a contract basis, therefore, resulting in a much difficult condition for the community. However, even more difficulty lies in fewer employees and more work. One must understand that the size of the municipalities have grown enormously, thus making the old arrangements virtually redundant. The Nagar-Palikas are on a spree of reducing the size of the workforce. So, almost the same number of people are cleaning the garbage of five times more people at the moment.

And the biggest casualty in this is the contract workers who are forced to do more work than their energy can handle. . Those who are fixed become bosses. These contract workers have the worst case scenario at home. They feel that despite these hardships, they would be confirmed as workers and their children would have a bright future. But Uttar-Pradesh is unique in this. The people who left the scavenging and joined Nagar-Palika�s contract labor force actually cannot afford to stop their wives from doing the private work of manual scavenging.

I tried to investigate this matter at different levels and through 10 years of my searching for private latrines and filming those filthy conditions, on many occasions my friends left me there to evade those dirty things. Even during the filming of these events, most of the friends leave the place. . One can imagine when we cannot see how degrading and dehumanizing it would be for those who are involved in the work and yet it does not become our national priority. It does not hurt anyone. The real reason for women getting involved in the practice is the brutal scenario that municipalities have done with the contract labours or simply called �Samvida� in Uttar-Pradesh.

The municipalities of Uttar-Pradesh must be taken to task for the most dehumanizing and insensitive attitude towards this community. Most of them never really pay salaries to these people on time. Yes, Nagarpalikas must be charged for dereliction of their social duty as well as their inability to pay the contract workers on time. In most cases they get paid only after four to six months. They shout, protest and the Nagarpalikas give them two months salary and again remain with the same backlog. If someone protests too much, he is threatened with termination. This is most insensitive. Until a year ago, this salary was around Rs 2,100, which does not even fulfill the basic criteria of Rs 100/- wage per day, thus violating the very principals of the minimum wages act. The backlog in payment has created a crisis situation in many places in Uttar-Pradesh, such as the female ward of the contract staff returning to the original manual scavenging. They charge the government for being more insensitive to their needs. Most of them actually said that they are resorting to this as they cannot see their children starving. The government has betrayed their cause they charge. It is easier to say why you do this but the pain and sense of betrayal is always visible in the faces of the community.

New urbanisation and more feminization of the scavenging

While the details that the governments are providing those which come under the town area, there is no news about the newly mushrooming semi-urban villages or rural townships which are not under the municipalities. In these areas, normally the people from Balmiki community are concentrated outside the village in a ghettoized rural slum exclusive for them. They are allowed to live in the village because they are doing the scavenging work, otherwise they would be thrown away from these villages. I visited many villages in Mohammadabad and then in Fatehpur district where such a situation exists that if people want to leave this profession they won�t be able to do so unless there is a social security net not only in terms of their job but also their housing. When I saw children as young as 8 years involved in the practice, I could not hold myself feeling criminal in this country. Parents have forced their children into it. More and more women have turned to it because they do not get jobs in the municipality and when their husbands do not get salaries on time, they have to depend on this.

The new urbanization process has created many things. One is feudal values remain the same, hence, despite economic problems the families want to look better and create concrete structures around them. However, the most neglected things in any family in India is its toilet. That shows how we treat the people who are involved. A majority of them have not been able to do anything related to their toilets. There is no sewerage system in the village. The one system which is being popularized by the municipalities is called �bahau,� which is a cemented platform and once you defecate you just pour water and the human excreta go directly to the nearby open drains. Even for that purpose, a sweeper is required. The other is �Uthau� which is where a pot is placed to defecate and the person comes and places the excreta into her basket and throws it to some isolated place, mostly in the dirty ponds around the village where pigs and other animals roam around. So, despite modernity, the urbanization has not helped reduce it. Most of the people of scavenging community are completely landless and live on the mercy of the powerful community in the village. Like in villages in Mohammadbad, it is Bhumihars and Muslim localities in the villages where most of the scavenging takes place. In Fatehpur too, it is the villages dominated by Muslims where scavenging is largely visible and the community people clearly inform us that if they leave this, they will have to be out of the village.

Racial discrimination and need strong measures

Recently it was reported midday meals being cooked by Dalit cooks were not being eaten by the non Dalit communities. In the past few years, many Dalit women have been making midday meals at different schools and there was no opposition. Then what happened all of a sudden? The fact is that in three to four places for the first time ever, Balmiki women were placed as cooks and that lead to boycotts of the midday meals by the others. It is tragic that any effort to mainstream this community and provide them with other than sanitary work has many challenges and obstacles. That is one reason that it is easy to tell people to move to other work. The problem is what is �the� other work? If a Balmiki boy or girl starts a tea shop in a village, the villagers at first instance, would not allow them to do it and even if he or she started it, it would need the support of the community. When the state government has succumbed to the pressure of the other communities and virtually humiliated the women who were involved in cooking midday meals by withdrawing its own order fixing the quota for SC-ST-OBC people, then we can understand the situation in rural Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar.

This issue cannot be kept under the rug as a small matter. It is a serious matter and we will have to reflect on why such things are happening. Once we analyze the things in proper perspective we will understand why we are unable to eliminate manual scavenging.

The government and its authorities will have to work more seriously on the issue. It is a shame that the authorities have not been able to do anything. The entry of non Balmiki communities into municipal jobs and their subleasing the jobs to the Balmikis again show how the forces of the status quo are ready to foil every effort for the welfare of the community. It is up to the government to show its will. The scavenging communities have been betrayed by almost all the governments and political parties. Their representation is fairly low at every level.

It is time to think specific quotas for them in professions not involving sanitation to completely separate them from this type of work. The municipalities must be made accountable and must be prosecuted for their failure to provide justice for this community. You cannot eliminate manual scavenging by victimizing the victims and threatening the very people who we have subjugated for years. All the cases of violation of rights of the community must be tackled seriously and municipalities hobnobbing with builders to throw them away from their locations must be booked under SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

India has failed to protect its own people. It has failed to implement the rule of law as far as manual scavenging is concerned. It is a national shame that the country is unable to eliminate it and that its children are still into this shameful practice. It is time it become our national priority and for political parties and social movements to take the issue more seriously and not in symbolic ways.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat lives in Dehli, India, and works as a full-time human rights defender. He has made several documentaries and also written books on the issues of human rights, Dalits, women and minorities. He also publishes the blog Manuski : Humanism for All.

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