The 2013 law on manual scavenging does not go far enough.
No city worth its name wants to be seen as a den of injustice and exploitation. Cities compete to show how they are modern, dynamic, open minded, just and “world class”. They establish museums, civic spaces, plural institutions for governance and push for technology-driven approaches to designing better buildings, transport networks and delivery of services.
The hallmark of a modern city is its technological advancement as well as its capacity to enable all of its residents to meet their full human potential.
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India’s treatment of its manual scavengers fundamentally denies Indian cities the right to claim the label of “just city”. As the recent death of two sanitation workers in Mumbai — and the lack of outrage and public concern — shows, such tragedies are occurring right in front of our eyes in India’s most “modern” cities. These forgotten people are not yet protected by India’s vast scaffolding of laws, including the recent Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
These two men suffocated to death while trying to repair a clogged drain under Mahatma Gandhi Road. Their deaths, along with those of many others like them, did not lead to candlelight vigils, social media uprisings or incessant chatter on TV networks. Instead, they were simply not noticed and the city moved on.
Can a city be just if a significant segment of its population is condemned to live in conditions of forced labour akin to slavery? Can a city be just if this forced labour is enforced through social norms and government neglect of a deeply dehumanised population?
Can a city be just if vast technological accomplishments, economic success and cultural advancements coexist comfortably with pre-modern conditions of work in sanitation? Can a city be just if the many are unaware of or ignore the humanity of the few? Can a city be just if discrimination and untouchability continue to deny humanity to a section of its citizens?
The 2013 law passed by Parliament was an improvement on the previous 1993 law, which had failed to force India to overcome its “shame”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put it. But there are signs that it will be just another unenforced law. It will simply be another piece of evidence trotted out by India’s elites that caste discrimination is a thing of the past, that India is a modern, technologically sophisticated country with a deeply humanistic culture.
The rules framed under the law have raised deep concerns and state governments have not even carried out the surveys of manual scavengers that they were mandated to before the deadlines. The law sees rehabilitation as an issue of one-time compensation, and not in terms of accumulated injustice and structural weakness in the labour market. This law does not seem to be a major electoral issue even for political parties which are supposedly pro-Dalit.
But the 2013 law is also a weak attempt to deal with the condition of manual scavengers in cities — a condition of denied humanity as well as economic entrapment. To eradicate it, there is a fundamental need to focus on economic justice. The struggle of the manual scavengers is, at base, the fight of the poor working class to discover better options for earning a dignified wage and living.
Indeed, from the Memphis sanitation workers strike that Martin Luther King, Jr led and supported to the struggles of sanitation workers who have gone on strike in Rio de Janeiro to demand better wages and conditions of work, thus leaving heaps of trash on the lovely Ipanema beach, economic justice has always been central to the sanitation sector.
India’s sanitation workers suffer from a denial of economic justice as much as a denial of equality and dignified treatment. At base, both economic and racial/ caste injustice rest on the denial of the humanity of manual scavengers. This has not changed as India has become more urbanised.
A serious approach to eradicate manual scavenging in India’s cities would begin by banning all manual involvement in sanitation work and mechanising the whole process of waste infrastructure. The new law allows the employment of manual scavengers as long as they are provided “protective gear”. This approach will continue to condemn them to the perils of their “traditional” occupation for generations to come.
Instead, a modern city should have an aggressive, reparations-based economic empowerment programme for all manual scavengers, who should be surveyed by a designated national agency. All sanitation work should be handled by advanced technology and, where necessary, by well-trained and certified workers who are not always identified from their “traditional” castes.
The repeated enunciation in words and complete repudiation in practice of elementary notions of humanity and equality in India’s cities is the stark reality that we confront. The fate of forgotten manual scavengers is an everyday reminder of how India’s cities continue to be unjust.