Working to eradicate manual scavenging, helping workers a dignified job

Bezwada Wilson

By Jagath KP*

Practise of manual scavenging exists in Indian society from time immemorial. Manual scavenging refers to the “the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner human excreta from dry latrines and sewers”. India banned manual scavenging through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The 2013 amendment provided punishment for engaging any person in the act of manual scavenging. However, the harsh reality of manual scavenging in India is that even eight years after making people employable in manual scavenging an offence, the practice still follows in various parts of the country. According to a national survey conducted among the 18 states in India, 48,345 manual scavengers were identified until January 2020, and the maximum number comes from Uttar Pradesh. The saddening reality, which the government itself is still unwilling to accept, is that during 2019 alone, 110 people were killed cleaning septic tanks in India. It was the maximum during the recent years and 61% increase compared to the previous year.

The practise of manual scavenging to a great extend is linked to the caste system in India. It was traditionally the job of certain Dalit and lower caste communities in respective regions. They were forced to do the task by the upper caste people for their livelihood. The manual scavenging is performed with minimal protection and safety measures and using essential tools like buckets, brooms, etc., which escalates its threat.

There were various efforts during the last few decades for the eradication of manual scavenging. One of the critical initiatives was the Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court in 2003 filed by Safai Karamchari Andolan. Along with 18 other organizations working against the eradication of manual scavenging. The PIL gained attention since the litigation named all states and various government institutions like railways, defence, judiciary and education as the violators. This PIL was a significant step towards the legal abolition of manual scavenging in India.

Safai Karamchari Andolan was an NGO founded by Bezwada Wilson in 1994 along with retired IAS official S.R. Sankaran and Dalit activist Paul Diwakar. The organization worked to eradicate and create awareness against manual scavenging and help manual scavenging workers a dignified job. SKA was launched initially as a state-level initiative, later scaled into a national initiative in 2003.

Due to the timely intervention of various individuals and organizations like SKA, in the last five decades, the number of manual scavengers came down from 7 million to around 50000. But the fight won’t be complete until no human being is forced to do manual scavenging.

As per Mr Bezwada Wilson, the solution for the issue is three-fold; manual scavenging can be eradicated only by the combined effort through technological adaptation, Government policies and creating awareness in the society. Technology advancement is needed to mechanize the human job when the waste dumbed is increasing day by day. We need to promote the various start-up initiatives that are trying to address the problem through technology. Support from the government is also crucial to find a solution for this problem. When the government is taking steps to abolish manual scavenging legally, there also needs to be efforts to implement it at the ground level. The hard reality is that instead of the government taking grassroots-level steps, they try to hide what is happening at the ground level. The government is responsible for compensating ten lakhs when someone loses life while doing manual scavenging. There are also provisions for interest-free loans of up to 40,000 for the manual scavengers to find a new livelihood.

But in most cases, the needy are not awarded with these supportive measures. The government also must address the waste issues caused by urbanization. It has led to the bigger and bigger township with increasing population but lacking scientific measures to address the waste generated. If the government initiates a proper technological shift, there will be a significant change in the need for manual scavenging.

Since most people performing manual scavenging belong to the lower caste, and once they leave the only livelihood they know to start a new life, support from the government is needed. The government needs to take steps to prove a new livelihood to these people. Along with the government and the technological advancements, society also needs to take the steps from their end. Each of us needs to accept the dignity and their rights for a better life for our fellow human beings who are forced to do something against their will. Since manual scavenging in India is closely related to caste, change in society’s perception is needed for a grassroots level change.

Mr Wilson’s request to the country’s young generation is to come up with technological changes that could address issues and raise your voice against any form of injustice in society. He believes the voice of each individual can make a change in society.

*IIM Ahmedabad | Class of 2022

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