Narain is the founder & CEO for 360 Degree Interactive, a web services firm based in Chennai, India. This blog is about his personal views on Web 2.0, RoR, Social networking,Digital media, interactive advertising, SaaS, Service Oriented Architecture, India Inc, rural education, Web standards, mobile 2.0 and more.

Thursday, May 26

Invisible India - One Million Slaves - all Dalits

Indians generally get worked up over rights violations. We wax indignant about the rights of Blacks in the US, the sovereignty of the Iraqis, the lack of religious freedom in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The list of causes is pretty long. There was a time when we used to get rather hysterical about the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Suggest, however, that the worst form of discrimination, nay, a form of racism is practised in our country and you'll have Indians shrieking in protest. But where else in the world except in the Indian subcontinent do you a find a particular caste forced to do the most degrading and inhuman of tasks, the manual removal of human and animal excreta? For generation after generation, the most exploited section among the untouchable Dalits has been forced to carry out the debasing work of cleaning human and animal faeces with brooms and small tin pails, and to cart the excrement on their heads in either baskets or old tin buckets to the nearest dumping ground which is invariably several kilometres away.

Local governments and private households across the country use their services to remove faeces from public and private latrines and open sewers, and to dispose of dead animals. Many are also engaged in underground sewage work. According to one government estimate, there are about a million manual scavengers in the country; unofficial estimates of the actual number are much higher.

Their life is more sordid than can be imagined. Very often, the containers given to the scavengers are old and leaky, and the contents of the container drip onto a scavenger's hair, clothes and body, especially during the rainy season. For all this, they earn a princely sum of Rs 30-40 a day!

It is difficult to say whether this is the more demeaning job or that of the sewerage worker who dives through narrow manholes into the sewers without any protective gear to clean up the foul mess. The work is extremely hazardous because the workers are immersed in raw sewage which in India also includes toxic industrial wastes. They suffer from tuberculosis, respiratory diseases, urinary tract infections, a range of skin diseases, eye disorders, gastrointestinal ailments, and even lung cancers. Thousands die every year while performing these tasks but it evokes little public concern – the scavenger and the sewerage worker have ceased to be human for us. And it suits us all, individuals and officials alike, because the exploitation is invisible or largely hidden from public view in the cities where such tasks are performed mostly at night.

The problem would have continued to remain hidden or ignored if it were not for a case that has been dragging in the Supreme Court. Two weeks ago, the court once again pulled up state governments for failing to abolish manual scavenging. It ordered the Centre and the states to prepare time-bound action plans, within six months, to eliminate this inhuman practice. It admonished the states again for the delay in ending the “pernicious and obnoxious” practice.

“If manual scavenging is still being resorted to, then the department or corporation should indicate with details what scheme it has for eliminating it and for rehabilitating the persons concerned and within what time-frame,” the order said. The case has been filed by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which represents the scavengers.

But it is unlikely that the apex court will be able to clean up the mess. In September last year, it had summoned the principal secretaries of eight states and union territories and admonished them for failing to take steps to end manual scavenging despite a court order. The irony is that manual scavenging and transporting of excreta has been banned for over a decade. Under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines (those not connected to a drainage system) can result in imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. Offenders are also liable to prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The bench ordered the Centre and the states to conduct high-level inquiries into each of their departments and corporations to ascertain whether manual scavenging is still being practised, and then to file an affidavit! The bench warned it would “hold the person responsible if it is found that the affidavit does not contain the truth”.

This is farcical since most of small town India and almost all of rural India is not connected to the sewerage system. Dry latrines thus remain one of the options for the millions who otherwise use the great outdoors for defecation.

What is the government's response to the court's strictures? It admits that manual scavenging is indeed a serious issue but says it has no funds to actually implement the 1993 law towards which it claimed that it had spent Rs 600 crore so far. Lack of funds is the standard government defence in all cases where it is pulled up for failing to implement orders. The Supreme Court was naturally not impressed by this argument and noted that: “Clearly there was a lack of will to implement the Act.”

In the court case, the figure of 787,000 is now being tossed around of those engaged in manual scavenging. However, Solidarity Network – a coalition which includes Human Rights Watch (the United States) and the National Campaign on Dalit (Oppressed) Human Rights – estimates there are at least one million of them in India.

While the government pleads lack of funds and the court does what it can to end this practice, the Dalits continue to live their lives in unbelievable filth and squalor. Let me quote from a report filed with the UN Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which comes under the UN Commission on Human Rights.

It says: “Public latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four kilometres away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger's hair, clothes and body.

Forty-year-old Manju, a manual scavenger employed by the urban municipality, described her daily routine and wages:

In the morning, I work from 6.00 am to 11.00 am cleaning the dry latrines. I collect the faeces and carry it on my head to the river half a kilometre away seven to ten times a day. In the afternoon I clean the gutters. Another Bhangi collects the rubbish from the gutters and places it outside. Then I come and pick it up and take it one kilometre away. My husband died 10 years ago. Since then I have been doing this. Today, I earn 30 rupees a day (US$0.75). Nine years ago, I earned Rs 16, then Rs 22, and for the last two years it has been Rs 30. But the payments are uncertain. For the last two months, we have not received anything. Every two months they pay, but there is no certainty. We are paid by the Nagar Palika municipality chief officer.

Needless to say, manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB is rife among the community.”

It is one of the amazing contradictions of India that it takes so much pride in putting ever more sophisticated spaceships into orbit, deploys the most sophisticated nuclear missiles but is unable to fix a basic problem like its sewerage and public hygiene. Since the 5,000 years of the Indian civilisation, we appear to have regressed by several millennia. The cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, had exemplary sewage systems that were available to all citizens.

That was undoubtedly a more egalitarian society. They had no slaves or barbaric caste exploitation. In India's knowledge society of the 21 st century, we need the Dalits to clean up our filth.

Courtesy: Business World Magazine
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