When Meena decided to go to school, her mother identified one quite far from her home. Sharda was a manual scavenger and knew that her occupation could spell trouble for her daughter. Meena went to a government school and struggled to reach class VIII. But her ambition was cut short when teachers and the principal at the school made her life miserable after stumbling upon her mother’s identity.
Inevitably, Meena too ended up as a scavenger, got married and gave birth to a baby girl. But the infant was born with disabilities. An NGO persuaded her to leave the occupation and promised help. It was easier said than done. In the last six years, Meena and five other women scavengers have approached Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit and other dignitaries. She also applied for a loan to the National Safai Karmachari Finance & Development Corporation, but is yet to get a loan.
Her story is hardly unique. Most of India’s four-five lakh manual scavengers—over 80 per cent of them women—have similar tales. But India continues to be in denial. Most states have filed patently false affidavits before the Supreme Court, denying the existence of manual scavengers. Strangely, the denials have come even as the first national survey of manual scavengers is being carried out in the 3,456 statutory towns.
Manual scavenging was legally banned in 1993. Since then, no one has been convicted and not one scavenger ‘honourably’ rehabilitated. Ironically, the biggest employer of manual scavengers is the Indian Railways, which shows little urgency to get rid of this demeaning practice. Clearly, it does not feel the law extends to it.
What is even more surprising is that the Centre has been setting aside funds for the rehabilitation of scavengers. The last two Union budgets had set aside Rs 100 crore each year. Not a single rupee was spent, as no state came forward to claim it.
Parliament this year passed a new law for the eradication of manual scavenging. But while acknowledging the historical injustice, it stopped shy of apologising to the half-a-million who continue to clean and carry human excreta. Equally shameful is the fact that neither Parliament nor government has the courage to set a deadline to rid the country of manual scavenging. Sustained campaigns have, however, helped build awareness. Now several central ministries are competing to champion the scavengers’ cause.
While the new law was initiated by the Union ministry of social justice, the ministries of rural development, water and sanitation, urban development etc are all concerned with the issue. Partly because of increasing budgetary support, more and more NGOs have jumped into the fray.
To be fair, deadlines were set by several PMs in the past for ending scavenging. Even Manmohan Singh had declared from the ramparts of the Red Fort that India would rid itself of scavenging by 2011. But Ambedkar had pointed out that law alone was not enough to put an end to social evils. One needed both political will and support from civil society. In the absence of such will, no end appears in sight to this sordid practice.
(Bhasha Singh is an assistant editor at Outlook Hindi, and author of Adrishya Bharat, a book on manual scavenging, whose English translation, Unseen, will be out soon)
All those pledges and slogans routinely trotted out about “abolishing manual scavenging” by the Centre always ring hollow (Where Words Fail). Even all our technological advancements have failed to solve this rather elementary crisis. Who shall we blame? Where does the buck stop?
I admired Bhasha Singh’s hard-hitting opinion piece on manual scavenging (Where Words Fail, Oct 21). Indeed a strong political will and support from civil society are mandatory for its abolition; only a strategic endeavour by both can hold hope for the future. Unfortunately, apathy and unconcern in those quarters towards setting a deadline to rid the country of the social evil and rehabilitate scavengers have deterred society from shedding its obnoxious caste pride and prejudice.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Most Municipal drainage workers are male. And scavengers are predominantly older male and female.
But ( in order to gain public symapthy ) the media has to publish a picture of a lady! This strategy is revealing!
What happens to human waste, if at all? We don't use it for any use, and it seems that in India, we are useless and helpless, and the idea of litter seems to be prevalent as we excrete and even Dalits who have moved ahead, haven't come up with a solution. We seem to be in 'The pursuit of happiness' and increasing the population immoderately. The question is for everyone who excretes, and I wonder, how we can help ourselves. It seems, that there is no water supply, where there is such a practice. The issue is, how can the govt. realize the solution to a problem, which says that there is immoderate and insufficient water supply?
Bore wells seem to be a water source, that does no harm to the ecology, because they are either in deep soil, or deep rock. But, it seems that wells can be dug, and preserved, as a more viable source of water.
SG's kangres will not bring any scheme for scavangers as most of them (almost all) are not enroled as voters. Why to blame state govts, mostly these scavangers keep shifting their stay in various state. But as usual, How Bhasha Singh can lay blame at Kangres! By the way do you have an NGO!
Indian Railways is the biggest "Excreta" generating and hygeine destroying organization in the world. It is not impossible for the Indian railways to completely replace its current "Drop the poop on track" toilets with proper toilets that are flushed out every day in nearest station's septic tank. But why is it that nothing is done in this regard?
Indian Railways needs to invest tonnes of money to make India cleaner and greener and for that it should be financially empowered. Now let us talk about that...
The swear, slogan,rhetoric, flamboyance,call it by any name, of abolishing manual scavenging as tom-tomed by the centre remains hollow. India attained freedom, but not the scavengers.The technological, scientific advancements made could hardly wipe out the curse of the society. Whom shall we blame? All? Where does the buck stop? Not certainly with the willingness of dalits ? Is rather the lack of steely resolve on the part of the government to rid the practise? The centuries old domination of caste reflects in governance also. Had the pitiable chunk been able to impose precondition before polls for an assurance from the centre, the problem would have seen the light of the day by this time. It would have pushed the administration to the defence atleast. The centre is yet to draw a whole some blue print of offering alternate employment those safai karmachaari. The concern shared by Apex judicial body in doing away with manual scavenging sadly, has not percolated into the minds of bureaucracy.
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