Scavenging: A national shame in 21st century India – DC

Dalit woman cleaning a dry latrine“The water closet was devised in Europe in 1596 and the flush toilet came into vogue in 1870, but there has been no deliverance for the Indian “untouchable”. This is the shaming message in the early part of the 21st century.” – Deccan Chronicle Edit

Writings in Indian languages in the early part of the last century provided us glimpses of the lives of men and women of the “untouchable” castes earning their daily bread through cleaning dry latrines using tin plates, brooms and baskets. A century on, about a week ago, the Supreme Court strongly criticised the Centre for “fooling” people into believing that scavenging had nearly become a thing of the past as legislation had been attempted at various times to extinguish this evil practice of cleaning human excrement out of dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks.

Once again on Monday, the government brought a bill in the Lok Sabha that aims to eliminate dry latrines and manual scavenging and seeks the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. It is a pity that the process of enactment of an important legislation dealing with a degrading practice had to be pushed through with no one paying attention as the House has seen over a week of turmoil on the “Coalgate” issue. It still seems to be escaping notice of our lawmakers that this is an important human rights issue which concerns the degradation of dalits, especially the women among them.

Bhangi protest in 2010 at Savanur, KarnatakaAn NGO submitted before the Supreme Court on Monday — quoting from census data of 2011 — that 4.97 lakh dry toilets were “serviced by animals” (dogs and pigs) and 7.94 lakh by human hands. The piercing irony of animals and humans performing the same function in society can hardly be missed. With slums proliferating everywhere in the wake of the very rapid urbanisation across the country, it is hard to say if the figures are in any way comprehensive. National trade union bodies do not represent scavengers and carriers of “night soil”, and generate no information on this subject.

There appear to exist no systematic figures to suggest if scavenging as an occupation has been declining, and if so then to what extent. But what is known is that the Indian Railways and municipal bodies across the country are the biggest employers of manual scavengers. Instead of employing modern technology to keep tracks clean, it is a crying shame that the Indian Railways actually sought exemption from the law on banning employment of manual cleaners of human waste. That firmly puts the government in the dock.

The water closet was devised in Europe in 1596 and the flush toilet came into vogue in 1870, but there has been no deliverance for the Indian “untouchable”. This is the shaming message in the early part of the 21st century. – Deccan Chronicle, 5 Sept. 2012

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