Tamil Nadu drags feet on rehabilitation of manual scavengers

Laveena Iyer, Asian College of Journalism

The deadline (30 September) to identify the number of persons engaged in manual scavenging has come and gone, and yet the Tamil Nadu government has done nothing to follow this directive of the central government.

The State Secretaries were given a deadline of September 30, to conduct a survey to identify the manual scavengers in their states”, said Samuel Velanganni, who was present at a meeting in July this year organised by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in New Delhi. Velanganni is State Co-ordinator, Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an NGO that has worked for the abolition of manual scavenging since 1996. The Tamil Nadu Government has not followed this order even after the Act was passed in September, he added.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Bill was passed in Parliament on September 7. The Bill received the President’s assent on September 18. Unlike the 1993 Act which saw no conviction, the current Act has scope for severe punishment of 5 years imprisonment and a high penalty of Rs.5 lakhs.

The new Act includes guidelines on how every state must ensure that the Municipalities and Panchayats identify manual scavengers in urban and rural areas respectively. Every state must conclude the survey within two months. Also, a Vigilance and Monitoring Committee needs to be formed by every state to oversee the rehabilitation process.

Local authorities, including municipal corporations, railways and cantonment boards must identify dry latrines in the state and demolish them within nine months. T. Peter, Chief Health Inspector, Cantonment Board, said, “The cantonment board is not responsible for dealing with manual scavengers.” This statement contradicts an advertisement put out by the cantonment board in The Hindu on 3 July, which calls for manual scavengers to register themselves at the St.Thomas Mount Office of the cantonment board.

The Chennai Corporation has entrusted the job of handling the sewerage system to the Chennai Metrowater Supply and Sewerage Board. Mr. Chandramohan, the Managing Director remained unavailable for comment on the issue.

In 2003, SKA had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court to take action against states that violated the 1993 Act. The Court directed all the states to file replies on the number of manual scavengers within a timeframe. Velanganni said, “In 2005, the Tamil Nadu Government filed an affidavit claiming there were no manual scavengers in the State. They have no interest to rehabilitate them.” While according to Census of India, 2011, there 17,414 dry latrines in Tamil Nadu that are serviced by humans or animals.

According to the 1993 legislation on manual scavenging, the definition for manual scavenging was restricted to those who handle excreta with their bare hands, hence excluding all sorts of other associated activities like drain cleaning, railway track cleaning and so on.

The current Act has expanded the definition of manual scavenging to include those employed to clean sewers, septic tanks and open drains. Still, there are certain loopholes according Deepthi Sukumar, National Board member, SKA. She said, “Workers employed in manholes are not covered under this Act. Workers employed to clear railway tracks will not be considered manual scavengers if provided protective gear.” It is not just sanitation issue but a violation of human rights, she added.

The 2011 Census conveys that manual scavenging is a profession that not only discriminates against Dalits, but Dalit women. According to the Census data, 98% of individuals employed as manual scavengers are women. 7.4 lakh households in India employ manual scavengers. There are 26 lakh dry latrines in India according to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011.

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