Only nine people died due to manual scavenging in India in 2023, says the latest data tabled in the Lok Sabha by Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. However, the data collected by Safai Karmachari Andolan (SFA) has recorded 57 deaths in 2023.
Data discrepancy, coupled with the ignorance of the consecutive political dispensation, worsens the situation of the marginalised communities, feels Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of the SFA. “The major problem lies in the denial. The Union Minister is lying on the floor of the Parliament. It is unbelievable that the government isn’t aware of the numbers and the prevalence of manual scavenging. But the problem lies in the attitude. They think that if these untouchable people die, it’s not a big matter.”
The SFA has submitted memorandums to the President, the Prime Minister and even the Supreme Court, but nothing has changed. Referring to manual scavenging as a ‘political problem’ and not a ‘social one’, the Magsaysay winner activist says: “Those in power are not taking the issue seriously. Our Prime Minister has been talking about Swachh Bharat, but even now, women in UP, MP, Bihar, Jharkhand, parts of Chhattisgarh and Jammu & Kashmir are cleaning human excreta. We are not concerned about the most marginalised citizens of this country and are unable to provide them with a situation where they can feel liberated.”
However, the biggest problem, he thinks, lies in the colonial mentality of the rulers. “They must think that Dalits and the marginalised share the same pedestal with them as citizens of a country that is governed by the Constitution. Otherwise, they would undermine the spirit of freedom struggle,” adds Wilson.
Still, the debate over the definition of manual scavenger lingers on. According to section 2(g) of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, “a person engaged or employed ... 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 latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises...”. Notably, it neither includes sewer, nor septic tank.
Against this backdrop, political seriousness is the only way to deal with the social menace on the eve of another independence day, notes Wilson.
(This appeared in the print as 'A Social Menace')