Interviews with Unions and Activists on Manual Scavenging

Abhishek Saha and Sarah Hafeez, Asian College of Journalism interview Deepti Sukumar, Suppurajan and Samuel Sathyaseelan on the new act of Manual Scavenging.

Deepthi Sukumar on the practice of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu
Suppurajan, joint secretary of Railway Contract Labour Union on conditions of workers in Chennai Railway station
Interview with Samuel Sathyaseelan, social worker


Deepthi Sukumar on the practice of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu

Deepthi Sukumar has been the National Core Member of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) for the last thirteen years. She has also been the Executive General Secretary of YWCA Chennai India and has worked with Christian Aid. She is keenly interested and committed to Human Rights issues especially with Dalit women. She is committed to advocacy, community mobilisation, programme management, evaluation and monitoring, writing and building capacities.

Ms Sukumar gives her take on the new law and the persistence of the practice of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu.

­­­The Act against manual scavenging came first in 1993, then the SKA’s PIL came in 2003 and then this new Act comes in 2013. How has the administration’s understanding of manual scavenging change over the two decades?

Even though the act came in 1993, the Central Government directed a survey at the national level only in 1996. Tamil Nadu did that survey in 1997-98. When we reviewed the survey report that there were a number of anomalies in the report, and it gave a sense that it was done just for namesake. The earlier act was not even implemented once in the last 19 years. The Tamil Nadu government claimed that 35000 manual scavengers were rehabilitated, but then when we filed an RTI and asked for proof, they failed to show us any.

Between 2000-2005, when we campaigned extensively against manual scavenging we found that top government officials like District Collectors, District Magistrates and welfare organisations were very ill-informed about the Act. We educated them, made them understand how different aspects like cleaning dry latrines and head-loading the excreta were covered by the Act.

When we filed the PIL in 2003, the Supreme came down hard upon the government. The SC asked the SKA for data, but at the same time, the State Government also asked for our report on rehabilitation of Manual scavengers to file their own report to the SC! What the TN government did was hilarious. They were constantly denying the existence of manual scavengers, yet taking our set of data on manual scavengers and then rehabilitating them, at the same time!

And how do you think society and governance understands the issue?

The shocking thing is that many government offices, police stations, army camps, courts, and several other central or state government institutions have dry latrines in their premises.

I will have to say, the PIL had got considerable publicity at the time. The media collaborated with us greatly. Newspapers like The Hindu and the Times of India published articles and letters to the editor against the act of manual scavenging. Several like-minded people in the National Advisory Council helped us.

The government then decided to work on four fronts after the furore the response to our PIL had caused, they being amendment of the Act, rehabilitation, demolition of dry latrines, and a national survey of manual scavengers. And since, after this, too many amendments were proposed, the decision was taken to introduce a new bill all together.

What do you think about the legal warps and wefts the issue is caught in? Why is there so much of confusion and double-speak over legal wording and implications of the new Act?

The manual scavenging done in manholes (at the behest of municipalities) and the railways is the most shocking because these bodies are government institutions. Actually this entire ‘protective gear’ jargon is a ploy by the state and central governments to save face. It is a conspiracy of sorts and it is an excuse for not working towards a complete elimination of manual scavenging. There is loss of human dignity even when workers do their job wearing protective gear. The Act says nothing about how we should work towards de-linking the practice of scavenging from caste issues and social discrimination. By throwing in words and clauses such as ‘protective gear’, the SC has destroyed the very spirit of the Act.

The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of manual scavenging in railways. But the Railways are of the opinion that it can’t be eliminated overnight. They have asked for time up to 2025, that is 12 years from now. It’s really a long time. They should not need more than a year to effectively implement modern technologies.

The irony is that, the railways should understand that as long as they are using manual scavengers, they are doing something unlawful, something illegal. Where is the justification? What message is it giving out?

What is the plight of the manual scavenger in the Indian Railways? What diseases do workers contract in the course of their occupation?

Several medical problems like gastroenterological disease, skin infections and respiratory problems affect the scavengers. They arise because of working in unhygienic conditions. And imagine the psychological hazard that a person undergoes when he or she sinks into a manhole filled with human excreta. Also, the entire issue of rampant alcoholism in the lives of manual scavengers is something that needs looking into. Many workers drink heavily to remain unconscious of their surroundings while cleaning. In Chennai central station, manual scavengers are employed openly. Imagine the extent of the problem in smaller stations in the state.


Interview with Mr.Suppurajan, Joint Secretary of RCLU – Railyway Contract Labour Union

Mr Suppurajan, Joint Secretary of the CITU-affiliated Railway Contract Labour Union (RCLU). He mans a small Amul outlet on Platform No.5 at the Chennai Central railway station. He is closely associated with the sweepers and manual scavengers allegedly working in Chennai Central Station.

What is the situation of sanitary workers in Central Station? Please describe the timings, nature and contacts of their job. What must the approximate number of workers employed be?

Almost all the cleaners are women. They earn wages Rs.150 to Rs.200 per day per 8-hour shift on a contractual basis. There are about 200 to 300 such workers employed. They are not given money for housing or education simply because they are contractual workers and not permanent government employees. They do not get paid leaves or bonuses. Right now Diwali is approaching, but they will not get any extra money. They do not get pensions or medical allowance. They only get the cleaning material like brooms etc. They are also given a blue sari which serves as a uniform.

How do the cleaners here do their work? Is it true that the railway employs manual scavengers?

Nowadays it is well nigh difficult to spot manual scavengers as such. No one cleans or handles human excreta with brooms, buckets and their bare hands at least in the open at usual daylight hours as it used to be. Nowadays, high pressure hose pipes are used to flush out faeces from the tracks. The rubbish and night soil is washed down a groove in the ground which channels it to larger drains.

Is there caste based discrimination prevalent in the ranks of the railway workers/employees with reference to different water and food quarters and the practice of untouchability?

On the station there is no such discrimination. They can buy food and water from wherever they want and they eat at the mess with everyone else. There is no denying that it is the lower castes who come to do the cleaning on the station. Only these people can come and sweep for such a small fee. But no, in the railways there is no such discrimination because we are in a city and caste- based differences get usually disguised. The government has made reservations for them but it has unfortunately not been able to pull them out of social discrimination and exploitation in general. Moreover, because of low levels of education, they are forced to take to such exploitative jobs which goes not only against human dignity but is hardly rewarding in terms of the pay.

The new act on manual scavenging mentions the use of safety gear for manual scavengers in railways. What are the provisions at this station? Has there been any change after September when the act was passed?

No there have been no changes as such as of now. The cleaners do wear gloves while working. But usually they dispense with it altogether because it is more a hindrance while working. Because they have round the clock duty and it is expedient and quicker to work without gloves they do not wear any. They do not wear face masks either.

Have you considered filing a case in court for the workers who are manual scavengers despite the new act prohibiting it in the railways? The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a well-organised body working against Manual Scavenging. Why don’t you approach them for legal help?

Well, umm I have not heard about the act. I do not know anything regarding this. Plans for forming a workers union and complaints addressal forum are in the pipeline. Most workers do not raise their voices or lodge complaints because they fear the repercussions. The contractors who hire them are very strict and coercive, therefore the silence.

Finally, why do you think the solution to this problem is? Should they change the toilets system in trains or should they properly mechanise the cleaning on railway tracks to prevent manual scavenging!

The authorities should make wearing of gloves and face masks compulsory so that the workers are free of diseases. Also, they should be given a basic salary commensurate with the ability to keep body and soul together, in keeping with the principle of upholding human dignity. The salary provided is way too low compared to the work they are forced to do. Elsewhere, they would have earned Rs.900 for the same amount of work. The railways should hire government contractors rather than private players who are currently over-exploiting the workers. They hire half the number of workers to save and make money and force them to do double the work. No one wants to do such a job voluntarily, if at all, they do it for survival.


Interview with Samuel Sathyaseelan, a social worker

Samuel Sathyaseelan is a Social Worker with MSW background. He has also taken up some Litigation issues to Court relating to Labour rights in the recent past.

The new law has brought manual scavenging in Railways under its ambit for the first time. How effectively does it tackle it? What is your comment on the usage of ‘protective gears’ by the scavengers which the Act mentions?

Manual scavenging is historically linked to the practice of untouchability and the continuation of such practices is prohibited under Article 17 of the Constitution of India. All workers irrespective of whether they are Manual scavengers, Sewage workers or scavengers in Railways etc. have to be completely abolished. One of the biggest violator is the Indian Railways which has toilets dropping all the excreta from trains on the tracks and they employ scavengers to clean it manually.

The new Act positively expanded the definition of ‘manual scavenger’ to include a person engaged or employed, inter alia, for manual cleaning of human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit, railway tracks etc.

However the Act has some serious flaws for it to implement more effectively:

Under Sec. 2 (g) (b)of the Act a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be a ‘manual scavenger’.

In this case if the Indian Railways use safety gear and maintain toilets well it can decide when they want to issue the notification on implementing the Act in the Indian Railways by the railway authority railways which has been recognised as appropriate government under the Act (Sec. 2 (f) (iii))

My view regarding the usage of ‘protective gears’ by the scavengers is an escape route for the government to continue using these workers rather releasing them from the bondage of untouchability. While the new law has provision for “protective gear” and “safety measures,” these provisions would only serve to continue the practice and for perpetrators to justify the practice of manual scavenging. According to Mr. A Raja, MP Rajya Sabha during the debate expressed that “Manual scavenging cannot be justified with the provision of so-called protective gear and safety measures”.

If there is prevalent injustice against railway manual scavengers in spite of the new Act, what legal course can we take?

It has been made the ‘duty’ of every local authority i.e. the Railway authority to use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning. If the authority does not follow the directions from the Act they can face penalty. According to Sec. 7 of the Act “No person, local authority (which includes Railways) or any agency shall, from such date as the State Government may notify, which shall not be later than one year from the date of commencement of this Act, engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. “Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 7 shall for the first contravention be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both, and for any subsequent contravention with imprisonment which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees, or with both” under Sec.9 of the Act.

The Act against manual scavenging came first in 1993, then the SKA’s PIL came in 2003 and then this new Act comes in 2013. How has the administration’s understanding of manual scavenging change over the two decades?  

There are many reports from time to time which said that even after the passage of 1993 act which had limited scope hardly any serious penalties or cases registered against the perpetrators. However the High Court of Gujarat, Delhi, Madras and Karnataka have issued various important guidelines to protect the lives of the Scavengers and sewage workers but the condition of such workers still exist. In the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) vs Union of India and six other organisations strived for the eradication of manual scavenging and sought for strict implementation of the 1993 Act and stressed the enforcement of fundamental rights as enshrined in Articles 14, 17, 19 and 21. The petition also made mention of employment of Safai Karamchari by the Indian railways. It is learnt that the Ministry of Railways in 2004 filed its affidavit by saying that all dry latrines had been converted into aqua latrines across the railways and that without provision of washable aprons at all important stations, ‘manual scavenging cannot be totally eradicated which later informed the court that it was inaccurate.

It is not only the Ministries but also the State Governments continue to deny the fact that there is existence of manual scavengers and not completely eradicated. Even after implementation of various schemes and programs this evil practice still exists even today in one way or the other.
We must also understand that all major developments, schemes, moderation of technology is only because the earnestness of the judiciary in the last decade to readily confront the issue and whip Centre & the state governments into action to protect the lives of these workers.

On an international front, what’s the manual scavenging scenario in other countries? 

Honestly speaking I have to do more research on this issue however most countries employ sewage workers but they are more machined by using modern technology, some countries have issued guidelines & precautionary measures also.

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