Safai Karamcharis: Untouchable and unheard

Shyamwati has been cleaning dry latrines for 20 years. Source: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

First posted on tnlabour.in

Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012, is the new bill that is to be passed by the Parliament. This new bill has been the centre of much debate regarding its provisions and whether these will be effective in banning manual scavenging.

This Bill comes after the utter failure of an earlier such legislation, Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This Act remained a ‘paper Act’, with no cases filed under it. As a result manual scavenging persists in various forms to this day, including in state-run organisations like the Indian Railways, which has an estimated 1,72,000 toilets on their trains that have to be cleaned daily along with human excreta that is discharged on the tracks.

The recommendations for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Sub-Plan (as part of 12th Five Year Plan) are currently being drafted. Why has there been no debate about using the SC/ST Sub-Plan to fight the scourge of manual scavenging? Planning has the potential to ensure targeted expenditure for rehabilitation of manual scavengers.

This is significant given that the Andhra Pradesh state government intends to introduce a new statute, the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Caste sub-plan Scheduled Tribe sub-plan Planning, Allocation and Utilisation of Financial Resources Bill 2012.  This bill promises to ensure that funds reach the intended target group effectively and will be introduced in the winter session of the assembly, which will commence on 10 December.

To understand the full extent of the problem of manual scavenging the article will look at the lack of data, the flawed definition of manual scavenging, the potential of SC/ST Sub-Plans and technological solutions to the problem.

Sketchy data

Manual scavenging has long been accepted to be an inhuman form of labour, something that has no place in any modern society. For anyone to argue in favour of the practice, or to mobilise political opinion in favour of the practice is morally impossible. Yet it persists, almost as if there is no alternative.

The Census 2011 data on insanitary latrines sheds light on the most archaic form of manual scavenging, where dry latrines are cleared of human excreta by fellow humans by hand (or by little metal plates or brooms into baskets or buckets and carried out and disposed).

Though this data does not survey who is employed for cleaning these latrines, it counts the number of dry latrines that are cleared by humans (night soil cleared by humans). The data establishes that India still has 7,94,390 dry latrines cleared by humans! And what is more shocking is that 27% of these latrines are in urban areas!

From this data one can get a sketchy picture about the extent to which manual scavenging is practiced in India. Latrines of various kinds, like those cleared by animals and flush latrines that are connected to open drains also require human intervention in maintaining them, which entails forms of manual scavenging. This data is a gross underestimate of manual scavenging in India.

Further, the National Sample Survey Organisation also doesn’t survey for manual scavengers. No definitive information exists other than documentaries, private studies and media reports.

Sewage diving is a common practice to clear clogged drains. Source: Hindu, File Photo

Defining ‘manual scavenging’

The definition of manual scavenging was a key contention with the 1993 Act. It defined a manual scavenger as a “person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta”, which was too narrow a definition, given the other forms that are prevalent, such as septic tank cleaning, sewage cleaning and railway track cleaning. So, the new Act proposes to define manual scavenging in a broader sense.

“manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed , at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrine is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

This definition seems to be rather comprehensive except for a small caveat, which weakens it considerably.

Explanation – For the purpose of this clause, -

(a) “engaged or employed” means being engaged or employed on a regular or contract basis;

(b) a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be manual ‘scavenger’;

The Act mentions “protective gear”, which goes against the very purpose of this act, which is to comprehensively ban the practice of manual scavenging. The National Advisory Council (NAC) in its recommendations to the government clearly states that the law should be made with the express purpose of uplifting communities of manual scavengers.

The following is an excerpt from their recommendations.

 “It is also important to ensure through a Statement of objects and reasons to emphasise that it is a law for “social welfare and not a law relating to “public health” or even “labour welfare”.”

This small loophole could leave a lot of room for state agencies to perpetuate the practice.

The Indian Railways is known to employ a large number of safai karamcharis to clear tracks of human excreta.

“Approximately 13000 trains run daily out of which 9000 are Passenger trains and 13 million passengers traveling every day. As per Nanda report the railways have cited several reasons for the delay, including prohibitive costs, with one estimate pegging the amount required for bio-toilets at Rs.1,600 crore. With the Indian Railways running a total of 50,000 coaches on date, of which 43,000 coaches are engaged in the passengers service, this means that there are a total of 1,72,000 toilets which are functioning today using technology which is completely unacceptable, in that it requires the use of manual scavengers to clean the human excreta which is directly discharged on to the railway tracks.” (Maila Mukti Yatra 2012-13)

Further, this definition does not include a very important category of manual scavengers, namely those engaged in collecting and disposing solid waste of all kinds (conservancy workers). These workers are employed by every local body, state and even central government to clear all kinds of solid waste and they handle every thing from shit, rotting meat, biological waste, bio-medical waste, chemical waste etc. These workers are usually the ones who are made to clean sewage lines and latrines for small sums of money.

This is not a law to ensure boots, or gloves, or masks to help clear shit, but a law to completely ban the practice of one human clearing the excreta of another only because they have been socially discriminated for centuries and condemned to such basal caste occupations.

Other than passing laws, what has the Indian state done?

The Central government launched one scheme called the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) in January 2007. The scheme offers monetary compensation to families of manual scavengers, cheaper loans for self-help activities, and provides training with a stipend.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment claims that under the SRMS 43,909 manual scavengers have completed training or are undergoing training, and 78,941 have been provided loans. According to SRMS documents online there are 118,474 manual scavengers and dependents in India. This is a gross underestimation and says a lot about the state’s attempts at rehabilitating manual scavengers.

The National Advisory Council has put forth four pertinent criticisms on this programme in a recent document on manual scavengers.

i. The large majority of persons benefited under the programme [SRMS] were not actually engaged as manual scavengers.

ii. An estimated 95% manual scavengers are women, whereas the majority of schemes and beneficiaries are men.

iii. Many are older women, with little education, skills and experience; and a loan and subsidy enterprise programme is mostly useless for them.

iv. There is also evidence of large-scale corruption, lack of transparency, delay, uncertainty and harassment.

A serious effort has to be made to tighten the leakages in rehabilitation schemes.

The SC/ST Sub-Plans

The Andhra Pradesh government’s move to pass legislation on the SC/ST Sub-Plan (ST/ST-SP) provides a much-needed political space to ensure that relevant schemes and allocations are made to uplift manual scavenging communities. It is in this light that one needs to look at SC/ST-SPs and understand their potential.

About 16% for SCs and 8% for STs has been allocated for the Sub-Plans (at least since 2001), but a closer analysis of these figures and the schemes included is needed.

In a press release on 26th October, the NAC raises some issues regarding the general problems of implementation of the SC/ST-SP. There is an utter lack of implementation of these plan funds for SC/STs in most states.

An important issue (and grey area) is regarding the rules governing the accounting processes of the government. The Government Accounting Rules, are designed with a single aim, to ensure the accuracy of accounts. These rules say nothing about how to demarcate targeted expenditures such as those meant for SC/STs, women or children. There is a lot of ambiguity in the multi-staged process of budget allocations, which is also the process by which plan funds are disbursed.

Why does certain expenditure appear in the SC/ST budget or the Gender Budget? It appears under these categories only because it is accounted for under these categories. Various accountants of the Government under various Departments and Ministries decide under which accounting head certain expenditure is categorised.  Despite all these checks and balances there is still no underlying principle that governs this process.

For example, Brinda Karat in an article brought to light how the Gender Budget was being inflated by including the costs of contraceptives and condoms under it, as if women were the only ones benefited by these expenditures.

“It would appear that a mechanical exercise has been done to include at least thirty per cent of all expenditures of a Ministry in the gender budget whether it is so or not.”

This is possible only because there are no rules governing how schemes are categorised in accounting. Similarly there are no rules for the SC/ST-SP.

If a certain amount of money is accounted for under the SC Budget, one is forced to take it at face value as some accountant, through his/her discretion, has decided in good faith that this expenditure is fit to be categorised under the SC/ST budget/plan allocation.

What potential do SC/ST Sub-Plans have?

SC/ST-SPs are a more centralised form of resource allocation as compared to the yearly budget allocation system, and hence can help make targeted interventions.

This entails gathering usable data, comprehensive rehabilitation programmes, which have to be implemented on a war footing via specially designed centrally funded missions. These should include a careful survey of various communities to identify manual scavengers, to ensure compulsory school enrolment for their children, vocational programmes for adults, making easy credit for small enterprises/ventures available, and pension for the aged.

Plans are a way to provide a holistic solution to the problems that are grave historical injustices such as manual scavenging.

Technological intervention in sanitation

Sanitary facilities and systems are still backward in the country. These have several implications for public health. For years, safai karamcharis have been bearing the brunt of these backward sanitation systems and maintaining them for terribly low wages.

The size and diameter of drain pipes in urban centres, the unregulated disposal of solid waste (garbage) into the drainage system (piped and open) and the lack of sufficient technology to maintain and clear drain system clogs are all core problems of sanitation. These still exist due to the lack of technological investment in this sector, where labour has been available for cheap.

Along with the ban on manual scavengers, there must be systematic upgradation of sanitation technology. This way, the structural dependence on safai karamcharis will also be addressed. If this is not done, municipal authorities and local bodies might continue to employ them secretly. This will perpetuate the existing situation.

Modern drainage systems (under ground piped drains and open drains) are only meant to carry liquid waste, and not meant for solid waste/garbage. Local authorities do not strictly enforce rules pertaining to the use of drains. A lot of commercial waste and street-side waste is dumped into the drainage systems. This becomes a problem once drains get clogged. And manual entry of safai karamcharis into drains to clear the blockages becomes inevitable, as there is no technology available to deal with such solid waste blocks, and no other people are willing (or desperate enough) to perform such work.

Recognising this, the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) attempted to develop a solution to this problem. Prof. Ligy Philip of IITM involved in the project, said at a meeting in Chennai (organised by students of IITM and Madras Institute of Development Studies) that one of the causes for manual scavenging persisting today is that drains are treated like garbage bins leading to clogging. It becomes impossible to clear them, as no technology exists for clearing such blockages. She was involved in a project to develop a technology to clear drains without manual entry into drains. The project was completed with a reasonable degree of success almost 10 years ago, but state apathy, and lack of willing producers has led to its abandonment.

The government should take it upon itself to fund more such research and ensure that viable technological solutions are developed.

Peoples’ movements

Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation fighting to ban manual scavenging, campaigned all over the country to spread awareness about the practice. Bezwada Wilson, who was born into a caste that were safai karamcharis (manual scavengers), took it upon himself to fight for all people employed in this profession and set up SKA in 1994 along with  Paul Diwakar and the late S.R Sankaran.

SKA, under the leadership of Mr. Wilson, spearheaded the campaign against manual scavenging and exposed local bodies, state governments and the central government’s apathy and tacit encouragement of the practice of manual scavenging.

SKA was able to grab media attention and bring this murky truth about Indian society to the fore. SKA met Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher and political commentator, in New Delhi when he came to tour India in 2010 and discussed their struggle with him. (Zizek’s interaction with SKA are available on video. Zizek later wrote an article on caste and untouchability in India as well.)

Other than SKA, the Jan Sahas has Maila Mukti Yatras (National Peoples’ March for Eradication of Manual Scavenging) to campaign for the cause of safai karamcharis and has launched a fresh Campaign for Dignity and Elimination of  Scavenging from November 30, 2012 to January 31, 2013 through 200 districts in 18 states. They launched their first campaign in 2001.

Several other organisations have also contributed in spreading awareness about manual scavenging. Recently, on 20 November, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front held a hunger strike in Chennai to call for a complete ban on manual scavenging.

These movements have played a critical role in shaming the state into initiating action to ban manual scavenging.

The struggle continues

The SC/ST SP has caused a lot of political hue and cry, with the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh proposing to pass legislation in the Assembly to improve its implementation. This is a welcome move, as there is extensive debate surrounding this proposition, and it promises to yield some positive outcomes. With the elections coming up in 2014, all political parties are forced to respond to the issue. The Andhra Pradesh State Assembly is currently debating the proposed legislation, with Backward Caste leaders demanding for similar allocations. Further there is a lobby that is demanding for sub-category allocations, to specific sub-castes within SCs.  Most manual scavenging communities are from the lowest rung of SC communities.

These are all welcome developments and promise to bring much needed political attention to the issue of manual scavenging.

The Maila Mukti Yatra 2012-13 began two days ago (30 November) in Bhopal and reports say that the government has responded by earmarking Rs.1,500 crore for toilet upgradation (to flush toilets). This is a welcome step, but a clear plan has to be charted out keeping in mind the social welfare of safai karamchari communities, the technological and structural factors that have forced them into such work even in this age of rapid technological advancement.

Also, do watch the documentary “Pee” (Shit) for a graphic account of the truly inhuman work that safai karamcharis are forced to do.

Do use the hyperlinks to access more detailed information regarding the problems of safai karamcharis.

The following are other articles written on the issues faced by safai karamcharis.

An informative account of the problems faced by manual scavengers is available at Vidya Bhushan Rawat’s blog.

Bezwada Wilson (Convenor, SKA) and Bhasha Singh wrote in The Hindu “Sh*t, caste and the holy dip

Harsh Mander also wrote in The Hindu recently “India’s great shame


One Comment on “Safai Karamcharis: Untouchable and unheard”

  1. [...] Safai Karamcharis: Untouchable and unheard → [...]


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