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Gujarat manual scavengers end protest: No assurance to rehabilitate workers from caste-based occupation

Surendranagar collector negotiating with Manjula Pradeep
By Our Representative
Gujarat’s manual scavengers, belonging to Doodhrej municipality of Surendrangar district, ended their nearly month-long protest against the authorities after the latter handed over a written assurance that their major demands, especially those related to providing them with fair wages and necessary safety equipment, would be met. This, the letter hopes, would take care of the issue that the workers have to manually clean up human excreta. The assurance follows Dalit rights NGO Navsarjan Trust director Manjula Pradeep’s meeting with Surendranagar district collector KB Bhatt, who agreed the manual scavengers’ plight was being “ignored.”
A perusal of the eight-point assurance, however, suggests that the authorities have not concede to the main demand of the manual scavengers that they should be rehabilitated in occupations other than the caste-based ones they are condemned to do for generations. The most important “concession” they could extract was, no action would be taken against any of the protesting workers, a few of whom were “sacked”. Another assurance relates to action to be initiated officials who “misbehaved” and “forced” them to manually clean up dirt.
It may be recalled that recently the Washington-based Human Rights Watch singled out Gujarat, along with Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, where manual scavenging is rampant, despite protests against it. One of the demands of the Safai Kamdar Hakk Rakhak Samiti, Surendranagar, was that anti-atrocities Act, as also the new law banning manual scavenging in all its manifestations, should be applied on the municipality authorities. There is no reference to any of the two laws in the written assurance.
At the dharna site just before the negotiations
The assurance contains a clause under which, once the contract system comes to an end, the municipality would employ the workers directly. This has given them the hope that their years old temporary work would end. Till then, the contract system, under which they are employed through the outsourcing method, would continue. The letter assurances the workers that they would get minimum wages, that they would get receipts of provident fund being deducted from their wages, and that the contractors would have to ensure that the workers are not maltreated by appointing competent inspectors to oversee the work.
The “assurance” followed week-long dharna by manual scavengers outside the Surendranagar district collector’s office following two protest rallies, which met with resistance from the authorities, who sacked five of the workers. The protest was being carried out under the banner of the Safai Kamdar Hakk Rakshak Samiti, Surendranagar, and supported by Navsarjan Trust activists. Naturbhai Parmar, a senior activist, told Counterview that a committee had been formed to ensure that there was no misbehaviour with women workers. This was part of the constitutional obligation, which had not been fulfilled so far.
The assurance admitted that in Doodhrej town there was a lack of public toilets, one reason why people who did not have individual toilets in their residence, were forced to go in the open. “We have taken a decision to build 6,000 toilets in the municipality area”, the letter handed over to the leaders of the protest said, adding, “Each household which does not have individual toilet would be given Rs 8,000 as subsidy.

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