Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, Chennai, organized a public discussion on ‘Abolition of Manual Scavenging’ on November 1st, focusing on the role and responsibilities of civil society in eradicating this persistent form of injustice that prevails in our society. ‘Manual Scavenging’ is one such issue in India, that keeps raising its visibility every now and then, when yet another unfortunate and often ‘lower caste’ soul dies while cleaning our shit. This time around, it was the death of two sanitary workers, in Madurai, that catalyzed the members of APSC-Chennai to raise this issue and find ways to sustain a campaign to eradicate this inhuman practice while exploring practical alternative solutions.
With Journalist Jeyarani moderating the session, Com. Jaggaiyyan from Adi Tamizhar Peravai, Com. Sathish Kumar from CPML (PL) TN, Com. Lenin from Theendamai Ozhippu Munnani (Untouchablility Eradication Front), Com. Saravanan from Forum against Manual Scavenging, Com. Anbuvendan from Republican Party of India, Com. Peter from Pattali Padhipu Vattam and Prof Lakshmanan from MIDS spoke as guest speakers. Most of the speakers focused on the persistence of use of manual scavengers inspite of it being banned over many years.They maintained that it was not just a labour issue but more importantly, a caste issue. All speakers presented a case study to press home the points that the lack of technological interventions to stop this inhuman occupation and the apathy shown to the deceased victims, the poor state of rehabilitation were all indicators of a certain culture that tolerates inequality and condones discrimination.
The issues raised also covered the lack of enumeration on manual scavengers, the lack of transparency in distribution of compensation for kin of victims who died due to asphyxiation in sewers, and the poor record of registration of cases under s under Employment as Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 as well as the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. Speakers pointed out that there is a clear caste dimension to this as it is almost entirely the members of dalit communities who engage in this activity and are forced into this activity.
The nuances to these positions were presented by Mr.Peter, who as a person working in Chennai Corporation, maintained that no good would come of making a lower grade officer take the charge for employing a manual scavenger when the order comes from higher up. He also said that he was part of the special committee constituted to enumerate the number of manual scavengers. “We had announced that we were registering manual scavengers for the survey and they could come to various offices to self register but only a few have come forward and that is what we reported” he said. He also maintained that in areas with slums it is impossible to lay large sewers and human intervention becomes unavoidable when they get blocked or else such houses cannot be provided with sewer connections. These counter positions initiated some debate.
The focus of the discussion also turned to possible interventions by civil society groups. Some of the ideas that emerged were, a full day festival against manual scavenging demanding rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Drawing in celebrities, the issue could be brought to mainstream attentions. The second ideas was to file RTIs in search of information on various crucial aspects of this issue so as to use it to pressure state to take credible intervention. College students at the meeting volunteered to help in organizing talks and cultural shows in the campuses with support by APSC-Chennai. There was also a suggestion to organize a discussion between corporation workers and activist groups against manual scavenging, so that issues become clear and the debate moves forward taking into account the specific problems encountered in abolishing manual scavenging.
Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle – Chennai, has been conducting discussions and events around emerging social and political issues. They are planning to continue the discussions around this issue.