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Manual scavenging bill, passed in Parliament, has several lacunae, is 'confined to urban areas'

By Our Representative
Meera Mathew, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, has said that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, pssed in Parliament, has several major flaws. In her latest opinion on the subject, the senior lawyer particularly pointed towards Chapter IV of the bill, which shows that it entirely deals with the identification of manual scavengers in urban areas and their rehabilitation.
Mathew has said, “Though rehabilitation has been included in the bill, the proposed law does not state which agency would be responsible for the rehabilitation. Neither the state nor the centre is mandated under the bill to provide financial assistance for the conversion of dry latrines. Though the bill talks about abolition, it does not mention the provision of protective equipment to safai karamcharis.”
Then, she points out, “The bill’s definition of the Chief Executive Officer’s duties, who is responsible for the identification of manual scavengers, is vague. Further, the bill should mandate that all manual scavengers are classified as Antyodya households to help ensure that they get all the benefits that the government offers people living below the poverty line. The bill also needs to address the terms of the financial assistance that manual scavengers can avail of, as part of their rehabilitation.”
Mathew regrets, “In 1993, India enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act which prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the construction or continuance of dry latrines. Again, ironically, there has not been a single conviction under this law in the past 20 years.” She adds, “We have a National Commission for Safai Karamcharia that has a chairman, four members and a secretary. However, the Commission’s website is redundant and that provides no statistics that help us understand the condition of safai karamcharis.”
She further says, “Their population is not counted separately in the general census because they fall under the single legal category of ‘Scheduled Castes’. However, a 2009 annual report of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment claims there are an estimated 7.7 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents across India.”
Pointing towards government indifference towards fighting the evil of fighting manual scavenging, she says, “It took judicial intervention, for this. Two cases — Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. v. Union Of India and Ors. (Writ Petition (C) No.583 of 2003) and Union of India v A. Narayanan (SLP (C) No. 23086 of 2011) were filed in Supreme Court. These petitions sought effective steps for the elimination of the practice of manual scavenging.”
Simultaneously, “the two petitions also wanted the formulation and implementation of comprehensive plans for rehabilitation of all persons employed as manual scavengers. To ensure these broad goals were achieved, the petitioners asked the Supreme Court to direct the Centre and States to take time-bound action on a host of specific measures”.
No doubt, the lawyer says, there are some major positive factors in the new law. For instance, “section 5 (3) of the new Bill obligates local authorities to conduct surveys of dry and wet latrines and provide sanitary public latrines. It imposes heavy penalties on the violators of the Act, which includes the occupants of homes that fail to demolish dry latrines or convert it into pour-flush toilets within the prescribed time-limit. Those who employ manual scavengers for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks are also liable for heavy penalties. This offence is considered as cognizable and non-bailable.”
Mathew comments, “India prides itself on having a Constitution that guarantees a free and noble existence to all its citizens. Yet, the progressive face of modern India has a relentless and ugly tinge; characterised by problems like manual scavenging. It has long been a matter of embarrassment that foreigners who visit India complain about our poor levels of sanitation.”
She adds, “The government which has the means to invest in infrastructural and developmental activities for the welfare of this unfortunate community is not the only impediment. Citizens in urban areas who dump non-degradable wastes into drainage systems and those in rural areas who refuse to phase out dry latrines actively encourage this exploitative system to continue.”
The lawyer insists, “Manual scavenging should be seen as a gross violation of human rights. The new manual scavenging legislation should not be a toothless one like the 1993 legislation. If this bill does become a reality, civil society must hold the central and state governments to the promises made in the bill. As of today, the reality of our manual scavengers has not changed significantly from what one of Mulk Raj Anand’s characters (a manual scavenger) in his path-breaking novel, Untouchable (1935), says: ‘They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt’.”

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