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The gritty detail

Manual scavenging laws will need to be supported by better sanitation policies.

Written by Balakrishnan Rajagopal |
September 17, 2013 2:24:25 am

Manual scavenging laws will need to be supported by better sanitation policies.

The recent passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill by Parliament is a welcome,long-overdue step in the right direction. The bill replaces the outdated and rarely implemented 1993 law,which purported to abolish manual scavenging. It has been passed primarily due to a sustained campaign by thousands of former women manual scavengers over the last several years,supported by civil society groups such as Navsarjan,Safai Karmachari Andolan and Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. The next and bigger challenge is to successfully implement this bill,for which these groups will need to maintain their struggle. India has a wonderful track record of passing pro-human rights legislation but a woeful record in implementing most of them. There is too much at stake to treat the passage of this bill as a victory and wind down the pressure for real change.

India’s leaders have long acknowledged that there is a need for a fundamental change in the way in which the country treats its waste handlers. Mahatma Gandhi as well as Manmohan Singh labelled manual scavenging a “shame”. The fact that two leaders,who are so far separated by history,decried a social practice using the same term tells us something about how incredibly resilient this problem is and how hard it is to come up with real solutions.

Manual scavenging is rooted in two very resilient structures,one social and the other of political economy. The social structure that buttresses manual scavenging is the caste system,which sanctions violence,discrimination,untouchability,stigma,and exclusion from social,economic and political power. Changes to this system have been very slow,especially in rural areas. Vast rural populations — concentrated in states such as Orissa,MP,UP,Bihar,Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan — continue to suffer because of domination by upper castes. Interestingly,these are the same states where almost 80 per cent of rural households do not have latrines,according to the 2011 census. Open defecation,a result of this lack of latrines,creates the need for manual cleaning of human waste. This,in turn,perpetuates the caste system. The manual scavenging crisis is worse in areas where caste relations remain powerful.

Manual scavenging is also very hard to eliminate because it is rooted in the political economy of resources — of water and revenue. There isn’t enough water to service a grid-based centralised waste treatment system in most cities and towns. Rural areas lack the infrastructure — pumps,plants etc — for a conventional sanitation system,which may also be non-viable,cost-wise. What is needed is a radical rethinking of the technology and the political economy of human waste. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched a competition to “reinvent the toilet” for this reason,among others. Many Dalit rights groups are also aware of this issue and have explored more fundamental solutions to the manual scavenging crisis,by looking at the broader issue of sanitation.

India is the epicentre of the global sanitation crisis. Its mission to end manual scavenging and rehabilitate scavengers is inextricably bound with its sanitation challenge. Ideally,both have to be dealt with together,through a series of policies and mechanisms which complement each other. From this perspective,the bill is a limited measure. Its laudable objectives can easily be frustrated by wrong-headed sanitation policies.

However,the new bill is,in several respects,a vast improvement on the 1993 law and must be used as an opportunity to focus on implementation as well as synergy with India’s sanitation policies. The main improvements are the expanded definition of manual scavengers to encompass contract labourers; the inclusion of public sector undertakings,such as the railways,a major culprit in sustaining the practice of manual scavenging; stronger monitoring and vigilance provisions,which now involve civil society groups; compulsory and time-bound surveys of unsanitary latrines by local authorities; the lack of any provision empowering the government to exempt buildings from this bill. But the bill is less robust in many respects,such as the absence of mandatory surveys of manual scavengers by states and the rather weak provisions concerning their rehabilitation. Many states simply denied that they had manual scavengers at all when they were challenged by civil society groups in court,under the old law. Therefore,it is a matter of deep concern that states have not been mandated to survey and report the number of manual scavengers.

The passage of this bill is a victory for Dalit rights,and for human rights generally. But there is a long way to go before India is able to end this practice,liberate manual scavengers and enable them to lead a better,more dignified life,all while solving its enormous sanitation crisis.

The writer is associate professor of law and development at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,Cambridge

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