Safai Karamcharis (or sanitation workers), this is the most neglected community of people in the fast growing India. According to the reply filed by the Minister of state for Social Justice Vijay Sampla, 12226 manual scavengers are presently employed in India, out of them 82% are from Uttar Pradesh. Also, in a separate reply filed by the Ministry of Rural Development in the lower house, 167487 households were officially reported a member of of the household as a manual scavenger.
Most of the karamcharis involved in this job are Dalits. This is due to a simple reason that this profession is still closely interlinked with untouchability as it was in traditional times. According to the caste system, the untouchables were the one who cleared the drains, sewer lines and carried human excreta.
Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA) v. Union of India:-
In India, first time the concerns of this community was raised by the person named Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA). SKA is a national level movement aimed at eradicating the manual scavenging completely from India. SKA filed the writ petition in the Supreme Court.
The Petitioners contended grave violations of fundamental & Constitutional Rights viz. Art. 14, 17, 21, 23 and 47 of people involved in Manual Scavenging.
Court instructed state and central governments to take actions for non-compliance & non-implementation against the concerned departments. The Court also looked into the issue of sewer death and ordered for compensation of Rs. 10 Lakhs to the family members in such cases.
The Court especially looked into the practices of employing manual scavengers by Indian Railways to clean the tracks and ordered for the implementation of time bound strategy to end such practices.
The Court ordered for legal, financial and administrative support to all the safai karamcharis and manual scavengers who were seeking rehabilitation.
Evolution of statutory framework:-
For the very first time, the sub-committee of the Task Force constituted by the Planning Commission in 1989 estimated the figures for the dry latrines in the country. The major relevance of this finding is that till date the dry latrines continue to exist in India, which according to the government is the major cause due to which the manual scavenging is not getting eradicated. In February 1989, the National Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Finance and Development Corporation was setup.
Then, in the year 1990 the GoI launched a scheme known as “Low Cost Sanitation for Liberation of Scavengers”. The scheme was aimed at replacing the dry latrines into low cost water pour flush latrines. In the year 1992, GoI again launched the scheme titled “National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents” which was aimed at identification, liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers and their dependents by providing alternative employment.
The National Seminar on Rural Sanitation which was held in the year 1992 recommended the construction of individual sanitary latrines for houses falling below the poverty line. The government accepted the recommendation. Then in the year 1993, parliament enacted the “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993”. The act was formulated with the objective of prohibiting the employment of manual scavengers as well as the construction or continuance of dry latrines.
The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) which was setup under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993 in its 3rd and 4th report submitted to Parliament stated that the act of 1993 is not getting implemented effectively and further revealed that the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers is increasing. The report was submitted by CAG on the National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependants clearly highlighted that most of the funds are lying unutilized and underutilized. It also stated that the scheme has failed miserably to liberate as well as rehabilitate the manual scavengers, if the workers have been liberated they haven’t been rehabilitated.
After the SKA filed the petition in the court and the pressure started to mount on the government, as a result of which in the year 2013 “The Prohibition of Employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013” was passed by the Parliament.
The act provided a more comprehensive approach to this entire issue. It defined many important terms like “hazardous cleaning”, “insanitary latrines”, “manual scavenger” etc. It directed the urban local bodies to conduct survey and record the number of insanitary latrines existing in a locality and demolish them or convert them to sanitary latrines. Further, it directed the local authorities to not to employ any person, directly or indirectly, for cleaning of sewer or a sceptic tank. The local authorities were made responsible for demolition of insanitary latrines and implementation of various provisions enshrined under the act. The act provided for penalties and punishments too. Part IV of the act also set out in detail the rehabilitation scheme to be followed by the government while rehabilitating the workers.
Conclusion: The Way ahead
Bezwada Wilson certainly helped in liberating many safai karamcharis, but the fact remains the same that this occupation is still deeply caste ridden. Also, the government and general public does not seem to be concerned about this matter, despite the launch of various missions like Swachh Bharat Mission and AMRUT mission.
The major obstacle in the entire process of welfare of these workers has been the non-implementation or non-compliance to the present statutory framework. Despite the SC delivering a landmark verdict on the manual scavenging, situation remains the same. The underutilisation and non-utilisation of the funds for the schemes and programmes is adding to the cause.
This entire process for welfare of these workers must be supported by public at large and government must focus strictly on the implementation part.
By Rishabh Srivastava and Shakeib Naru
Rishabh is the President of Hari-Kamal Foundation for Policy Research. Shakeib is a researcher in the foundation