By Jitendra Rathod*
Despite strong denials from the Gujarat government, the heinous practice of manual scavenging remains prevalent in Ahmedabad city, the business capital of the state. Manual scavenging is manual removal of excreta (night soil) from “dry toilets”, which are toilets without modern flush system or adequate water supply. A just-completed survey by Manav Garima, a community-based organization, fighting for the rights of the scavenging community, Valmikis, in Ahmedabad, has found that there are 126 spots where manual scavenging is practiced under the aegis of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). More, the survey suggests, 188 dry latrines still continue to operate in the city.
The practice continues in violation of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, which provides for punishment to those employing manual scavengers or those who order construction of dry (non-flush) latrines. The punishment includes imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. There have been petitions in High Courts of various states and the Supreme Court seeking proper implementation of the Act. State and Union governments have filed many affidavits assuring eradication of manual scavenging. Yet, there has not been any change in the situation.
In May 2012 Manav Garima filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in this regard. As usual, the Gujarat government replied that there is no manual scavenger in Gujarat and Gujarat is very serious on effective implementation of the 1993 Act. This prompted Manav Garima to carry out a comprehensive survey in January-February 2013 to identify spots where manual scavenging is being practiced, the condition of manual scavengers and the present status of public toilets in certain selected pockets of the AMC area.
While the survey found that there were 126 spots where manual scavenging was being practiced, this was just a sample and covered the areas where Manav Garima is intensively working for the rights of Valmikis, mainly in western Ahmedabad and some areas of the walled city.
The Act prohibiting manual scavenging also prohibits construction of dry latrines in any form. But, even after 20 years of the enactment of the Act, dry latrines persist under the jurisdiction of the AMC. The survey found 188 dry latrines, where safai karmacharis are forced to remove night soil manually everyday. The following table suggests the places in Ahmedabad where Manav Garima found dry latrines still continue:
Table 1: Dry latrines in Ahmedabad
(Source: Manav Garima survey)
Instead of demolition of dry latrines, the AMC recently constructed 30 new dry latrines for children in Nagorivad area of Ahmedabad.
The practice of manual scavenging in Ahmedabad is different from that prevailing in other states. Here, the manual scavenger manually collects, removes and lifts night soil of at least 100 persons. They have to perform this as part of their duty, mostly around the public toilets and the footpaths in the slums and some highly populated areas. The following table shows the areas where the inhumane practice of manual scavenging still continues:
Table 2: Places where manual scavenging is practiced:
(Source: Manav Garima survey)
If manual scavenging continues in Ahmedabad despite the Act prohibiting it, the AMC should squarely take the blame for it. There are no basic amenities in a large number of slums like water or drainage. In addition, great majority of slum dwellers’ houses do not have individual toilets. In most cases, slum dwellers use public toilets, if available in proper shape in their areas. Otherwise, they defecate in the open, whether it is footpath or the surrounding of public toilets. Safai karmacharis are obliged to clean up, remove and lift night soil in early morning between 6 and 7 am everyday, so that nobody is able to notice that the practice of manual scavenging exists in the city. All the places are cleaned up before Ahmedabad wakes up.
While the 1993 Act prohibited manual scavenging, no efforts are made by AMC authorities to ensure that safai karmacharis are provided safety equipment. Most of them operate with the help of a simple broom and an iron plate for removing night soil. There are a large number casual workers among these safai karmacharis, some of them working for the last nearly a decade, without being regularized. Working through the system of contractors, who employ them to do the menial job, they are given a paltry Rs 90 per day as wages. There is no life or health insurance for this category of manual scavengers. Nor are they covered under any other social security provisions.
Most of the public toilets in slums are in poor condition and are not properly maintained. Half of the public toilets have no doors, electricity, or water taps. In addition to this, there are insufficient number of public toilets as against the number of people wanting to use them. The result is, slum dwellers more often than not defecate in the open late at night or early in the morning. Most children defecate in the open area of public toilets, as poor parents cannot afford to pay for the children to use the public toilets.
The Manav Garima survey suggests that most safai karmacharis are not aware of the fact that the practice of manual scavenging is prohibited by law since 1993. When they are told that it is illegal, they express helplessness. In fact, they fear that the AMC or the private contractor, through whom they work, would either harass them or remove them from their job if they refuse to manually clean up night soil. Hence, they continue to lift night soil in order to be in job.
Recently, the Ministry of Social justice and Empowerment, Government of India, announced to do a nationwide survey to identify manual scavengers. A new draft bill on prohibiting manual scavenging is pending before Parliament. If passed, the practice will invite criminal punishment for those who force safai karmacharis to do manual scavenging. But, no state government has yet started the survey, and all deadlines have gone awry.
The Gujarat government announced, through a notification, to conduct the survey. It was also decided at the highest level to do the survey from June 21 to June 26 in all major cities and 195 statutory towns of Gujarat. Yet, the state showed insensitivity towards the issue. The survey was never carried out. Even officials concerned are not aware about the survey.
In the meanwhile, Manav Garima has written to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, the Gujarat government and the AMC authorities insisting that the survey should be carried out at the earliest. The AMC has finally agreed to conduct the survey to identify manual scavengers on the basis of the data collected by Manav Garima.