Hundreds of former manual scavengers rose as one at New Delhi’s Constitution Club to demand an apology from the government for the wrongs done to the community. “Apologise now for the violation of our dignity,” they said.
In late September 2010, the former scavengers had left Delhi in five buses heading out to cover 20 states on a Samajik Parivartan Yatra (National Rally for Social Transformation). Their aim was to promote the eradication of manual scavenging. The rally was organised by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), whose activities had helped to eradicate manual scavenging in the five states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Haryana over the past two years. “We are hoping to add Punjab and Rajasthan to the list soon”, said SKA convenor Bezwada Wilson.
On 1 November 2010, the scavengers were back in Delhi to celebrate the end of their rally. They roared in approval, each time a liberated “safai karamchari” narrated her personal story of sufferings and vowed never again to go back to “that life of shame and indignity.”
The star of the day was the spit-fire Umayal from Tamil Nadu. Recalling her school days, she said she used to be made to stand in a corner and was ordered to bring her own plate because her mother cleaned human excreta. “This is happening even today. I want to ask the government: You spend so much money on advertising on TV. Why can’t you use some of it to spread awareness about us? Why can’t my children study? Why can’t they become Collectors? Why not? Why not?” The tearful Umayal was led away to screams of “apologise, apologise” from the audience.
The day before, the group was welcomed at the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra (International Youth Centre).
“I used to pick up 17 baskets [of excreta] in a month. With helps from SKA and Mr. Wilson, I decided never to do this work, even if I die,” said Narayanamma, who cleaned dry latrines in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh nearly a decade ago. Having given up the inhuman work, she proudly told the gathering a school had been erected in place of the dry latrine where she used to work.
Also present was activist-writer Harsh Mander, who had written Narayanamma’s story in his book Unheard Voices. He said it was the “lack of outrage at human indignity” on the part of civil society that has caused this inhuman practice of scavenging to prevail.
On 23 October 2010, the National Advisory Council, headed by Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi, had asked the government to abolish human scavenging in the country by 2012.
Parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, declaring the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines to be an offence punishable with imprisonment and a fine. But no one has been punished so far, SKA said.
There are still an estimated 1.3 million manuals scavengers left in India.
Manual scavenging is being tackled at two levels: the conversion of dry latrines into pour-flush toilets and the rehabilitation of scavengers themselves. Rehabilitation often includes retraining and offering alternative employment.
The rehabilitation of sixty scavengers in Ambala in Haryana state proved, however, to be shortlived. In May 2010 they had demonstratively burned the baskets they used for collecting human excreta outside the District Collector’s office to mark their employment as sweepers by the local administration. Five months later, all of them are without work, after the administration had accused them of being “lazy”.
“It took us a lot of courage to set those baskets on fire and announce that we were free. But now, for many of us the only way to feed our family is to pick up the same basket again,” said a disheartened worker.
According to Rajkumar, State president of SKA, instead of offering the former scavengers grants for permanent employment, the administration had forced them to clean the gutters and the sewerage system before floods hit the area. This is no better than manual scavenging, Rajkumar said.
“There is a law which makes this work illegal but the world gives enough reasons for an uneducated poor Dalit to still do scavenging,” said Mr. Bezwada.” Manual scavenging is integrally linked with the caste system and is imposed on certain Dalit sub-caste groups. Invariably, women, comprising 82 per cent of the caste, carry the burden.