Gujarat State claims to be No 1 in India for achieving its developmental goals. This claim is being made despite the fact that members of the Valmiki community of the scheduled castes (SCs) for years have been employed in Gujarat State’s gram panchayats, municipalities, municipal corporations and private companies in such odd jobs like disposal of human excreta and dead animals. A special civil application No 13911/08 was filed in the Gujarat High Court on this state of affairs, following a news item published in the Times of India (“These Hands Deal with Filth”, November 17, 2008). The petition to the Gujarat High Court quoted data provided by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India, which had estimates that, as on January 9, 2007, there were 64,195 safai karmacharis in Gujarat. There is reason to believe that the number of safai karmacharis would have gone up drastically thereafter.
The safai karmacharis continue to be involved in all types hazardous jobs such as cleaning up toilets, removing human excreta scattered around public toilets, disposing of dead animals both in villages and cities, cleaning up gutters, cleaning up toilets of private companies, septic tanks, and in pay and use toilets. A few years ago, a Gujarat government-sponsored report, prepared by scholars from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), H Beck and Shailesh Darokar, titled “Study of Practice of Manual Scavenging in Gujarat”, found that thousands of safai karmacharis in Gujarat are involved in the despicable practice of manual scavenging. The study was officially not approved by the Gujarat government, hence it was never released. The fear was strong in the state government: Had it been accepted, this would damaged the “reputation” of Gujarat as No 1 in development.
Several years ago, the Gujarat government, in a writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court (Civil 583/2003), claimed that there were no manual scavengers in Gujarat. Ironically, however, even today, the state government’s Gujarat State Safai Kamdar Development Corporation offers soft loan to rehabilitate manual scavengers. Interestingly, the loan applications make it mandatory for the applicants to get their status as manual scavengers certified from a senior official. The children of manual scavengers are offered scholarship. Indeed, thousands of manual scavengers remain involved in cleaning up of manholes and gutters. This has led, on an average, to the death of nine manhole workers per year. All this cannot be interpreted in any other way but a clear and an open violation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, approved by Parliament.
The Gujarat Safai Kamdar Development Corporation currently offers insurance to the tune of Rs 50,000 to those who die due to suffocation while working in gutters. Despite this, so far, the insurance claims have been cleared only against two deaths. However, the Gujarat government has refused to take precautionary steps which would ensure that incidents such as these do not take place. Most safai karmacharis and their dependents living in villages, municipalities and municipalities are in dire need of housing. The government offers soft loans to them. However, it has not floated any scheme under which safai karmacharis become owners of plots of land to build their own houses. The result of all this is that, thousands of joint families are condemned to live in single room houses.
In view of the above situation, the Navsarjan Trust wrote a letter to Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel putting up following demands:
- In case the state government is really concerned about the development of the deprived sections of the population, it must immediately float a scheme to provide housing plots to members of the Valmiki community.
- Despite the fact that the of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 came into force last year-end, the Gujarat government has still not cared to frame rules to implement the law. The rules should formulate urgently.
- Most of Gujarat’s gram panchayats employ safai karmacharis, who are offered a lump-sum amount of Rs 200 to Rs 500, and are made to work as temporary workers for long, some of them for 15 to 20 years. All of them should be immediately taken as permanent employees.
- While municipalities and municipal corporations keep expanding to new areas, the administrative expenditure on them seen a steady decline. As a result, permanent posts of safai karmacharis remain vacant. These posts should be immediately filled up.
- Recently, the Supreme Court came up with an important verdict, under which the kin of all those who died while working in gutters and manholes since 1993 due to asphyxiation should be paid a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each. The Gujarat government should take immediate steps to identify such cases, and pay the compensation amount to the nearest relatives of these workers.
Copies of the letter were sent to the chief secretary, Gujarat State; Gujarat minister for social justice and empowerment Ramanlal Vora; the principal secretary, department of social justice and empowerment; director, scheduled caste welfare, Gujarat government; Gujarat panchayats minister Jayanti Kavadia; principal secretary, panchayats, Gujarat government; and principal secretary, urban development, Gujarat government.
*Senior activist, Navsarjan Trust