By Dhruv Pachauri*
If you cannot modify something you have to destroy it completely and rebuild. We need to destroy the whole caste system – Bezwada Wilson
While scrolling through YouTube, a documentary made by Samdish Bhatia on Manual scavengers in Mumbai stunned me. Immediately, multiple questions were in front of me. What is manual scavenging & why is it still prevalent in India? Are we as a society sending people to gas chambers to die off? Why only people of certain castes have to risk their lives?
Let us start with understanding manual scavenging & manual scavengers. According to the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993, manual scavenging is the act where an individual has to carry human excreta manually. Individuals doing so are manual scavengers.
According to an estimation by a recognized agency, there are 7.7 lakhs of sewer cleaners (individuals sent deep into sewers for cleaning them) and 36 thousand manual scavengers employed as safai karamcharis in Indian Railways. On average, more than 1700 deaths occur annually due to the inhalation of poisonous gases by manual scavengers while being in clogged sewers. The act of manual scavenging is a threat to life and on average reduces the lifespan of an individual practicing it to just 40-45 years due to increased vulnerability to multiple diseases. And surprisingly, 98% of the manual scavengers are Dalits & Women.
Mr. Bezwada & Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA)
While learning about different social movements in India, my friends and I got a chance to interact with Mr. Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan & recipient of Ramon Magsaysay Award, 2016. Mr. Bezwada Wilson is a crusader against manual scavenging and discrimination due to the caste system. Mr. Bezwada channeled the voices against manual scavenging through a National Movement “Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA)”. SKA has been leading from the front on legal as well as social fronts. On the petition filed by SKA, the Supreme Court passed the order to end manual scavenging as per the laws of 1993. SKA has been active for more than 30 years. SKA has more than 6,300 volunteers spread across 439 districts, fighting against the heinous practice of manual scavenging.
During our interaction, we came across multiple stimulating questions and the following sections would cover the understanding developed through the interaction with Mr. Bezwada.
Are laws abolishing manual scavenging sufficient?
In India, manual scavenging is prohibited as per the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993. The law had been in breach for most of the time. In 2003, SKA filed a petition for stricter implementation of the 1993 Act based on the premise that violation of the act is instead a violation of Article 17 (prohibiting untouchability) & Article 21 (Right to live with dignity). In 2014, the Supreme Court gave its decision in the favor of a petition linking violation of the 1993 Act with the violation of constitutional mandate.
Even after such judgments and acts, the practice is still prevalent across regions of India. The answer to this dilemma lies in the fact that officials operating state machinery have been influenced by the caste system and discrimination. Even after the Supreme Court directives of 2014, no Government officers have been prosecuted for the violation of the act while manual scavenging is prevalent in regions of India. There are FIRs filed against officers for the violation of the Anti Manual Scavenging Act but no FIR has reached the prosecution stage.
Secondly, the lack of awareness among the oppressed about existing laws and their rights also adds to the poor implementation of the laws mentioned in the Constitution of India.
Caste System: a matter of convenience for the powerful?
To keep the powerful being in power for a long time, any society needs a tier-based structure for the exploitation of the people in the lower tiers of society. In India, it is the caste system which is providing a tier-based system for the exploitation of the people labeled as lower caste people. The caste system makes people in the upper tiers believe that they are privileged to have the services of the lower caste people. Individuals belonging to the upper castes leverage the caste system for getting done menial activities at cheap labor. Thus, the practice of the caste system is a matter of convenience for the people belonging to the upper castes.
Is it right to ask the oppressed for solutions?
When Mr. Bezwada filed the petition in Supreme Court, he and his fellows were asked multiple times about the solutions to curb the heinous act of manual scavenging. As per Mr. Bezwada Wilson, the state machinery must think about the solutions to curb the social evil rather than of anyone else. Oppressed people should not be burdened with the task of finding out the solution once again. This reflects the lack of thought invested by the state machinery to curb this heinous activity of manual scavenging.
Could technology be leveraged to eradicate manual scavenging?
To amuse, India has reached Mars and has become a Nuclear power but very few scientists are working towards the automation of the entire manual scavenging process. Very little attention has been paid to the direction of having a technological solution to the problem of manual scavenging. India needs to pay much more attention to having a technological solution to curb this social evil. After all, humans are the basic unit of civilization.
Is Financial rehabilitation the only support required from the Government?
Governments in India have been seen taking rehabilitation related to just finance. In views of Mr. Bezwada Financing is the last help to be provided to victims of manual scavenging practice. According to him, the Government should not focus on giving instant remedy by providing buffaloes or auto-rickshaws to the victims. Rather, the Government should focus on identifying the potential of victims and help them learn new skills as these people had not done anything other than manual scavenging. During the period of training and learning, the Government should provide sustainable financial support to the victims. Once people have acquired relevant skills to seek alternative occupations then the Government should provide them with the required assets to pursue that alternative occupation.
Awareness about injustice is a must
Due to the prevalence and deep roots of the caste system in India, lower castes had been made to believe that manual scavenging should be done by them and upper castes are privileged and superior to them. To eradicate the practice of manual scavenging, it should be made clear to the oppressed ones that they had not been doing the manual scavenging due to the need of the money or for lack of skills but it is mainly due to the one and only one evil which is the caste system. It is to be made clearer to the oppressed ones that if others could sustain without doing manual scavenging then they could also sustain without going through such undignified work.
On the same line, SKA is trying to increase awareness about the heinous act of manual scavenging among the oppressed ones. SKA is also helping the oppressed seeking liberation with the knowledge of methods to protest and get out of the vicious cycle. Once oppressed are motivated to get liberated from manual scavenging then nobody in the world could stop them to do so.
*PGP 2 student at IIM Ahmedabad. The article has been inspired by the interaction conducted by Dhruv, Ashish & Rudril with Mr. Bezwada Wilson