Exposing An Abhorrent Practice

By S Viswanathan

15 February, 2006

Historians have hailed the Indus Valley Civilisation (2600 B.C.-1900 B.C.) as one of the earliest forms of urban culture and affirmed that this civilisation established India, along with Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Sumeria, as one of the crucibles of human refinement. Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the two major cities on the banks of the Indus and Ravi rivers, and over 100 small towns around them stood testimony to the excellence of the town planning system of the period. Architects have particularly admired the underground drainage system, evidenced by the constructions excavated in Lothal (Gujarat), as the most unique aspect of planning during the Harappan civilisation. The expert masonry with bricks kept the sewer watertight and provided for a cleaning device also. Another notable feature is that even houses of common people had indoor baths and drains that emptied into underground soakage jars.

A common man-centred sanitation and public health planning apparently received top priority. This is in striking contrast to other ancient civilisations. Sir John Marshall, the acknowledged authority on the Indus Valley Civilisation, who was responsible for the excavations, observes, as quoted by Jawaharlal Nehru in his Discovery of India, "... there is nothing that we know of in prehistoric Egypt or Mesopotamia or anywhere else in western Asia to compare with the well-built baths and commodious house of the citizens of Mohenjodaro. In these countries much money and thought were lavished on the building of magnificent temples for the gods and on the palaces and tombs of kings, but the rest of the people seemingly had to content themselves with insignificant dwellings of mud. In the Indus Valley the picture is reversed and the finest structures are those erected for the convenience of the citizens." Nehru also writes, "These public and private baths, as well as the excellent drainage system we find in Mohenjodaro, are the first of their kind yet discovered anywhere."

But now, 5000 years later, the land of the Indus Valley Civilisation is a study in contrast, in terms of the priorities of the ruling political class. Sanitation and public health have almost lost the race for top slots in the rulers' priority. The poor and the underprivileged get a raw deal. In India only 28 per cent of the population has sustained access to improved sanitation, against 98 per cent in Sri Lanka, 41 in Bangladesh and 36 in Pakistan, according to the United Nations Human Development Report, 2001.

Improved sanitation has been defined as access to adequate facilities for excreta disposal, such as connection to a sewer or septic tank system, a pour-flush latrine or a ventilated, improved pit latrine. An excreta disposal system is considered adequate if it is private or shared (but not public) and if it can prevent effectively human, animal and insect contact with excreta. This is vital because human excreta is considered the principal vehicle of communicable diseases such as diarrhoea, which, together with malnutrition, respiratory diseases and endemic malaria, is the main cause of death among infants and children in developing countries.

The dismal failure of the state to provide a safe, scientific and efficient system of human waste disposal, which can ensure a healthy life for all, including the deprived sections, 60 years after Independence and despite tremendous advances in science and technology, has been effectively exposed by Gita Ramaswamy in India Stinking. Explaining the discriminatory character of the existing system, she writes, "In 1983, the national sample survey showed that around 50 per cent of people in the higher income brackets had access to flush latrines that are usually connected to sewerage systems. By contrast, fewer than 40 per cent of the poor were found to have access to a latrine and about 70 per cent of those with latrine facilities shared them with others." Inasmuch as the local bodies, which manage the sewerage systems, charge only a nominal user fee, she argues, the facilities provided to the middle and upper classes are heavily subsidised. The poor, on the other hand, are deprived of this basic facility.

But then, is this a mere problem of system failure or paucity of funds? No, this has another, more important aspect to it, contends Gita Ramaswamy in a detailed analysis. For, many anachronistic devices and systems have yielded to modern, expensive gadgets or tools in the name of public good. But behind the question of doing away with the existing system of human waste disposal - manual scavenging - one can see a deep-rooted prejudice against Dalits, on whom the hierarchical caste Hindu society has thrust this obnoxious occupation only because they are born into this segregated social group. Dalits are asked to lift human excreta from private and community dry latrines using mostly a tin plate and carry it in buckets or as headload to be dumped elsewhere. The existing sanitary system is, therefore, discriminatory not only in respect of its coverage, but also in the matter of choosing the manpower needed to operate the system.

Gita Ramaswamy discusses a wide range of issues relating to manual scavenging though her study concerns mainly Andhra Pradesh, which accounts for about 1.6 lakh manual scavengers. In a historical overview she traces the origin of manual scavenging to the Narada Samhita, which mentions the disposal of human excreta as one of the 15 duties assigned to slaves. "In Vajasaneyi Samhita," the author states, "chandalas were referred to as slaves engaged in the disposal of human excreta." In her opinion, manual scavenging expanded phenomenally and entrenched itself under the British rule, particularly in the mid-18th century, which marked the beginning of industrialisation and urbanisation in the subcontinent. "When urbanisation set in - which should have rationally led to scientific sewage practices - Hindu society found it convenient to force madigas and bhangis into manual scavenging," writes Gita.

The traditional Hindu concepts of "impurity" and "pollution", the bedrock of the inhuman practice of "untouchability", discouraged them from having indoor toilets and goaded them to insist on manual scavenging by Dalits. The people who were brought from villages to lay roads and railway tracks were later used for menial jobs, including manual scavenging. Those engaged in this operation, over 80 per cent of them women, have been the worst victims of untouchability in many parts of the country. They are branded "polluted" and for that very reason pushed into manual scavenging and again, because they do this job they are treated as "polluted" and hence "untouchable". They are thus caught in a vortex.

"In Andhra Pradesh," writes Gita, "manual scavenging became a widespread practice with increasing urbanisation in the late nineteenth century. The destruction of artisan trade and imposition of property relations and commercialisation of land by the British caused social upheavals. Urbanised groups, led by the privileged castes, did not think of setting up a proper underground drainage system like the Nizam of Hyderabad did, back in the 1930s. This period witnessed the importation of people to do a job that even local Dalits refused to do." It was during this period that Dalits who worked as agricultural labourers were gradually brought into scavenging.

"In a context where the Dalits were largely not allowed to own land, and where they were pulled by worsening circumstances in villages, urbanisation and the need for sweepers and scavengers was the `pull' factor," Gita observes. This led to the migration of Dalit communities across the country. Gita refers to the migration of Methars from Haryana to Telangana to work as manual scavengers. There was also substantial migration of Dalits from one region to another within the Madras Presidency, of which Andhra was a part, under British rule.

Giving more information about the migration of Dalits, the author writes, "During and after Partition, the Pakistani state, despite the ethnic cleansing of Hindus, refused to allow the `untouchables' involved in safai karamchari work to emigrate to India. While the Indian government tried to secure safe passage for the Hindus of Pakistan, there was no concern about the Dalit `Hindus' left behind in Pakistan, not that a better life awaited them in India." She also mentions that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar raised the issue in a letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Stating that the British "institutionalised", if not invented, manual scavenging, she observes, "Technology is supposed to remove social prejudice; however, the technology of sanitation was structured to deepen social prejudice in India." It is this caste-based prejudice that caused the beginning of the practice of manual scavenging thousands of years ago and that now stands in the way of terminating it, despite the 1993 Central Act.

TWELVE years after the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was enacted, manual scavenging, one of the most dehumanising of the occupations "assigned" to Dalits in their long history, remains unaffected by the legislation. The aim of the Act was to abolish the practice once for all, by declaring the employment of manual scavengers to remove human excreta an offence, and to prohibit the construction of dry latrines.

The failure of the Act to make a dent on the obnoxious system is attributed to the apathy of the governments at the Centre and in the States. While the Centre took four years to notify the Act, State governments took three more years to adopt it. Even after the Act came into force in many States by 2001, no significant fall in the number of dry latrines or those engaged in manual scavenging has been reported. Ironically, in 2005 the Supreme Court was informed, during the course of a hearing of petitions seeking the enforcement of the Act, that the number of manual scavengers was 5.88 lakhs in 1992 and it had risen to 7.87 lakhs in 10 years. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has, however, put the number of manual scavengers in 2002-03 at 6.76 lakhs.

The Andhra Pradesh-based Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organisation working among manual scavengers, has stated that 13 lakh people from Dalit communities continue to be employed as manual scavengers in the country, in 96 lakh private and community dry latrines managed by municipalities. In a chapter titled, "How widespread is manual scavenging today?" Gita refers to the third report of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis released in 2000, which noted that manual scavengers were employed in public sector undertakings under the control of the Railways and in Defence establishments such as the Military Engineering Services. According to the report, 30 dry latrines under the Army at Golconda in Hyderabad were converted into sealed units, leaving the remaining eight for future action. Cities such as Delhi, Shimla, Mathura, Agra, Bhopal, Jaipur and Indore have a high concentration of dry toilets. Interestingly, a significant number of these latrines serviced by manual scavengers are in the houses of tradition-bound wealthy people, who are reluctant to make any alteration as required by the new law.

THE Safai Karamchari Andolan and six other organisations, besides seven scavengers, filed a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court in 2003 seeking the enforcement of the Act. The petition complained that manual scavenging still existed in many States and was being continued even in public sector undertakings, including the Railways. The petitioners sought enforcement of their fundamental right guaranteed under Article 17 (right against untouchability) read with Articles 14, 19 and 21 that guarantee equality, freedom, and protection of life and personal liberty respectively. They urged the court to issue time-bound directions to the Union of India and the various States to take effective steps to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging simultaneously with the formulation and implementation of comprehensive plans for the rehabilitation of the displaced manual scavengers (Frontline, June 17, 2005).

The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) observed in his report released in 2003, which was among the documents before the Court, that the National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependents, launched in 1992 had failed to achieve its objectives even after 10 years of its implementation involving investments of more than Rs.600 crores. The CAG found that much of the allotted fund was either unspent or underutilised. The report said that there was no evidence to show that those liberated from the occupation were rehabilitated.

The Railways in its affidavit said a proposal to fit totally sealed toilet systems was under consideration, but expressed its inability to submit a time-bound programme for the purpose. It admitted that there were approximately 30,000 passenger coaches fitted with open-discharge toilets. The Supreme Court expressed its disapproval of the Railways' refusal to indicate any time frame to make the needed alterations. On April 5, 2005, the court directed the Centre and the States to verify the facts and indicate within six months a time-bound programme if the existence of manual scavenging is confirmed. The petition is still pending before the Supreme Court.

In their replies to the earlier orders of the court, many State governments had told the court that there were no dry latrines in their States. Although Tamil Nadu claimed in its affidavit that manual scavenging had been eradicated in the State, petitioner-organisations countered it after a survey in 2004. They asserted, with photographic evidence, that manual scavenging was prevalent in at least nine districts.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan's sample survey, which was part of its all-India study in 30 districts, covered 12 Tamil Nadu districts The survey confirmed the existence of both private- and community-run dry latrines serviced by manual scavengers in many urban areas. Nearly 80 per cent of the scavengers, employed by the government, local bodies or contractors or private homes are women. The survey found that manual scavenging was rampant all over the State and identified at least 38 manual scavengers who were yet to receive any benefit under the government's rehabilitation scheme. People using public roads as toilets is a common sight in several small towns, according to the survey. In corporation and municipal areas, scavengers entering manholes on streets to clear blockages was a common sight, the survey report said. The survey found manual scavenging taking place at many places, including a police station, in the Madurai city Corporation.

It is true that Tamil Nadu was among the first States to adopt the Central Act prohibiting the construction of dry latrines, but the State government is yet to frame the rules and issue a notification.

Gita Ramaswamy stayed with manual scavengers for several months and gives a poignant account of their struggle for life and emphasises the need to abolish manual scavenging at the earliest. "The existing practices of sanitation in municipalities need to be reformed and upgraded so that none - from any caste - has to pick up faeces manually," she pleads. She has devoted two chapters to explain the splendid work done by the Safai Karamchari Andolan under the dynamic leadership of its founder, Bezwada Wilson, to the cause of liberating this deprived section. The text of the 1993 Act on manual scavenging and the continuing public debate over the views of Gandhi and Ambedkar on Dalits are valuable additions to the book, which also carries a brilliant foreword by Bezwada Wilson.

The author concludes that inasmuch as the burden of manual scavenging has been thrust on Dalits and the poor are the worst victims of the government's failure to provide a more efficient and scientific sanitation and sewage system, manual scavenging is both a caste and class issue. She calls for a vigorous campaign to end the practice. She is perhaps right in observing that the focus of Dalit organisations on the issue of manual scavenging is yet lacking. "In an age when mechanisation with harvesters and tractors has rendered thousands of manual labourers jobless," Gita notes, "it is a standing testimony to the lasting virulence of the caste system that public facility cleaning and sewage disposal are still handled by human beings." The rulers often fault their failure to provide a better and more scientific alternative to manual scavenging on the cost factor. But no price is too high to restore human dignity to the oppressed and ensure better health the poor.

India Stinking: Manual scavengers Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their work; Gita Ramaswamy; Navayana Publishing, 54, I Floor, Savarirayalu Street, Pondicherry 605008; pages 108, Rs.100.


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