Manual scavenging has been called the worst surviving symbol of untouchability. The International Labour Organisation defines it as the removal of human excreta from public streets and dry latrines, and cleaning septic tanks, severs and gutters. The practice, though prevalent in other parts of the world, has a predominant presence in India. The people engaged in carrying out this act are usually from the lower castes: namely, the Dalits. The Supreme Court found in 2014 that there were over 9.6 million dry latrines in India which required manual emptying. The states where the practice is predominant are Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Deaths arising from manual scavenging are commonplace in India, and there has been press attention turned to the scavengers’ dangerous conditions of work in the National Capital.
Manual scavenging is prohibited by both international instruments, and Indian law. International agencies such as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (as a water and sanitary issue), the World Health Organisation (as a health issue), the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Organisation have all called for an end to the practice.
In Indian law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, which is the current law against manual scavenging, prohibits dry latrines and all kinds of manual cleaning of excrement as well as cleaning gutters, sewers, and septic tanks without protective gear (§7 & §9). However, the prevalence of manual scavenging is not just a federal statutory violation, it is a human rights violation too.
The Constitution of India, in conformity with the international position, abolishes untouchability (Art. 17) and prohibits caste-based discrimination (Art. 15). Furthermore, under the Constitution human dignity is an inalienable right which is part of the fundamental right to life. The Courts have held human dignity to be the most important, fundamental, inalienable and transcendental of rights. ‘Dignity’ has been interpreted to include equal treatment and respect, and equal protection of law. It is a universally recognised right, endorsed by instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by way of Articles 1,22 and 23.
However, sadly, despite such constitutional safeguards, manual scavengers remain victims of discrimination. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, as India is a federal democracy and sanitation falls within the competency of the states (Entry 6, List II, Schedule VII, Constitution of India), the implementation of the prohibition on manual scavenging rests solely within the domain of the states. Hence, no collective/nation-wide action can be taken by the federal government. Secondly, the law requires that the rehabilitation of scavengers has to be carried out as per the existing schemes, even though these very schemes have not been successful in eradicating the practice in the past. Thirdly, it is not just the law but the attitude of public authorities which aggravates the plight of the scavengers. The Government has repeatedly sought an extension of deadline to curb the problem, exhibiting its lack of commitment.
The present scheme of law therefore fails in protecting the dignity of manual scavengers. The end to manual scavenging can come not only by modernizing sanitation but by also ensuring former scavengers do not go back to it as a result of poverty or unemployment. Amendments to the current law, strict enforcement, and a change in mind-set are needed.
In Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, the Supreme Court directed the government to completely abolish the practice and provide for the rehabilitation of people released from manual scavenging. However, no progress has been made. It is clear that the the judiciary has been taking active steps to ensure respect for the human rights of manual scavengers, but such steps without the support of the others organs of government is to no avail.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has recently drafted a proposal for a better implementation of the Act. The proposal provides for revised safety standards, stricter punishments for contractors and better rehabilitation machinery for the scavengers. It is to be hoped that the proposal will be implemented speedily, which would not only ensure the rights of the scavengers are protected by punishing the wrongdoers, but also rehabilitate the scavengers both monetarily and mentally, thereby making the basic right to dignity a reality for the manual scavengers.