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A cause close to Mahatma Gandhi’s heart, this community is yet to be identified and uplifted

It is Valmiki Jayanti and schools across north India are shut. Yet Shyamwati, who belongs to the Balmiki community (a Dalit caste believed to be the descendants of sage Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayan), does not have the day off. She criss-crosses the cemented by-lanes in her village, Farrukhnagar in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, at a brisk pace with a round cane basket and a broom on her hip.

She enters a small roofless shed in an employer’s house and dumps her basket on the floor. Then she takes out a flat metal piece about a foot long and 3 inches wide, and looks around for a small white sack which contains fresh ash from the choolah (wood stove). She draws a scoopful of ash, dumps the grey-black-powdery-pebbly mix on a heap of human excreta in a small hole made in the floor of this roofless room, then scrapes it all up and loads it in her basket. All through this 6- to 7-minute task, she has herdupatta covering her nose. Next, she zeroes in on goat faeces littering the area around the shed, picks it up without the ash-sprinkling ritual, dumps it all in her basket, and heads across the road to an open rubbish heap. She empties her basket and then heads off to the next house.
It’s only 9am and she has at least eight more houses to cover.
Shyamwati, who is in her 40s, is a manual scavenger who cleans pakhanas or dry latrines, and one of the 35 or so women in the village of Farrukhnagar who continues to do this “job” for a measly wage ofRs.50-70 per house per month and 8-10 rotis (one roti per house per day) or sometimes a nal (40kg) of wheat from a household per year. She has been cleaning pakhanas for more than 20 years now, ever since she got married. “I hated doing this earlier, now I don’t have a choice. My mother-in-law used to do it, so I had to do it. I just hope my daughters don’t end up in the same job,” she says.
In the 19 years since it has been around, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, has had no impact on Shyamwati’s life.
“How could that Act have had any impact on the lives of manual scavengers? There was no focus on their plight. Do you know that even though this Act was passed in 1993, it was not notified until 1997; and by 2000, only five states had adopted it?” asks Delhi-based Wilson Bezwada, the founder and national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, a group dedicated to ending manual scavenging. “If scavengers stop this work, what are they supposed to do? People like Shyamwati have to eat too. Till we don’t create alternative occupations for this community, we cannot get rid of manual scavenging. The 1993 Act hardly focused on the rehabilitation aspect,” he adds.
Discussion is the key
Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, Delhi, who has been working in the field of sanitation, and for the end of manual scavenging, for 44 years, asks a simple question: So many aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings have been picked by other people and carried on, why not this one? “That’s because as a society we are not comfortable talking about sanitation or scavenging. This is ‘dirty work’ and we don’t like discussing it,” he says. In his opinion if we want to eradicate scavenging we need to adopt a four-pronged approach: “First, rehabilitate scavengers by giving them vocational training; second educate their children; third preventing the construction of dry latrines alone will not work, we must provide low-cost solutions of wet toilets that can be built easily in minimal spaces and don’t require sewage disposal systems; and finally, integrate members of this community within society by taking them to temples or eating with them and also by not allowing any other tasks associated with their community to be restricted to them. For example, for a long time only members of this community were expected to carry news of death. All this must stop,” says Pathak.
The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2012, introduced in September in the Lok Sabha, is not an ideal Bill, but it does have a better approach because it discusses rehabilitation, says Ashif Shaikh, Dewas- (Madhya Pradesh) based convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. It will be organizing a Maila Mukti Yatra, a march from Bhopal to Delhi, at the end of the month to create awareness about the issue and motivate more people to leave this occupation.
“The one good thing is that the Bill has been introduced by the ministry of social justice and empowerment, which means hopefully there will be a focus on rehabilitation. The earlier Act had been tabled by the ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation and the focus was more on sanitation and less on identification and rehabilitation of scavengers,” says Shaikh.
Everyone must consent
But this is not enough. For effective implementation of this Bill it will be important that a provision be made right now to include all the agencies concerned, such as the Indian Railway or the army, where the practice of manual scavenging (including people who work in septic tanks and sewage pipes) still exists, to comply with regulations and safety norms.
It is also surprising that no serious attempt has been made to identify the people employed in this trade even though one of the provisions of the 1993 Act stipulated this. Wilson and Pathak say a Supreme Court notice of 2003 asking the government and its agencies to spell out why the identification was not carried out did not help much. The 1993 Act has a huge loophole, says Wilson. Most manual scavengers are hired by municipal and government bodies and hence come under the jurisdiction of the district magistrate. “A magistrate must identify a manual scavenger. Now if the magistrate says that there are manual scavengers working in his area, then it is he who is liable to be punished because the Act prohibits ‘him’ or the government agency of which he is in charge from employing people in such roles. Is it any wonder that for a long time many government agencies denied that scavenging exists? That it exists still was confirmed in the 2011 census and that why the need for this new Bill was felt,” says Wilson.
The new Bill still does not address this issue adequately, according to him. He says civil society should also be allowed to work on identifying scavengers in association with government bodies.
Apart from bureaucratic apathy, Shaikh believes another reason why people from the scavenging community are not able to leave this work is because even within the Dalit community, they have no say. “The Balmikis are the lowest of the low and powerful lobbies within the Dalit community do nothing to help them or raise their voice against this pratha (practice). We hope through the Maila Mukti Yatra we will be able to explain to people that doing this work is not just a job but a form of slavery.”
This is slavery, says Shyamwati. “Even if we want to leave this, people in the village will not let us. Even now if we are sick for a few days and don’t turn up, people come to our house to fight with us.” From conversations with women scavengers in Farrukhnagar, it was clear that this job is now being left to the women of the community, and even families are not encouraging women to leave this practice.
In fact, one of the men accompanying us, who now works as a labourer at a construction site, had no answer when we asked why he was encouraging other women to leave scavenging when his own wife still worked in eight houses as a manual scavenger.
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