Lend their support to Safai Karmachari’s on their Bhim Yatra
Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, students from MIDS, Asian College of Journalism, IIT Madras and other city colleges came together for a discussion on Manual Scavenging and ways to abolish this inhuman practice. They were joined by kin of deceased manual scavengers, members of Safai Karamchari Andolan, Tamilnadu Untouchability Eradication Front, and other fraternal organizations and concerned individuals.
This was also a preparatory meeting to receive the Bhim Yatris, who are on a Nation wide bus tour to bring awareness about the continued prevalence of this criminal practice inspite of two major legislations to abolish this and over two decades of sustained advocacy. Bhim Yatra, organized by Safai Karamchari Andolan, began from Assam, on 11th December 2015. It will travel through most states to reach New Delhi on 13th April 2016. It is also aimed at mobilizing support and putting pressure on the Government to comprehensively implement the 2013 Law that intends to abolish the act while also rehabilitating the workers.
Neethi Rajan, from Tamilnadu Untouchability Eradication Front, began the discussion by reminding us about the slogan of Ambedkar to the Bhangi’s who were on strike against Bombay municipality. “Throw away your broom, and burn your baskets” was the clarion call that Ambedkar had given to the untouchables forced to clean the city’s shit. Restating that the practice of manual scavenging is deeply implicit in our caste system and practice of untouchability, Neethi Rajan sought to know why this country can’t deploy its science and engineering to the issue of sanitation. “It is because there is a caste to do the job and die doing it” he reiterated. While making explicit that the only solution to this issue is to make this task entirely mechanized and automated as in other countries, he also sought the support of the civil society to create pressure on the government.
Prema Revathi, rendered a poem by Sughitarani on Manual scavenging that discusses the inhuman nature of the work and also the frustration of being unable to end this practice. Speaking from her experience during the Tsunami Disaster, she said that with every disaster, its the safai karamcharis, who are brought in waste trucks from across the state and made to clean the city. “they have no protection, no support, often not even clean places to stay, wash and eat. They have to do the dirtiest and unhealthiest of tasks – of clearing dead bodies that have decomposed for days. If they suffer injuries or disease, they have nothing to fall back on”. She recalled the incident of a life of worker, hailed as hero of the disaster, whose death after 2 years of the disaster was never examined and attributed to alcoholism. She pointed out that it is the ‘invisibility’ of this work – as it happens mostly in night, public often move away due to the stench and unclean nature of the work and usually no one bothers to know who and how they do this dirty work – there is often no pressure from the people to end this crime. She recounted Ambedkar’s articulation that it was the lack of fraternal relationship because of the hierarchic, oppressive caste society, which lied at the root of all social evils.
Padam Narayanan, director of Change India, judicial activist, spoke about the many issues that continue to hamper the implementation of the 2013 Act. He lamented about the efforts that were taken to get the courts to take action on this issue and how inspite of the act stipulating the end of this practice and rehabilitation of workers, even the basic requisite of a proper survey has not been undertaken. He exemplified the mindset of the state which sets cost of rehabilitation for a manual scavenger to a lowly Rs 40000. The state he said, is still unwilling to even spend an estimated Rs15 crore for compensation of workers killed in sewerage pits when crores are splurged during the Global Investors meet.
The community members also spoke of their experience, travails and aspirations. Three men had died due to asphyxiation while cleaning a spectic tank in a private gated community in Perungudi, Chennai. They have not yet been compensated as the State has maintained that they are not responsible for the deaths and referred the matter to the courts. Recounting the harrowing episode, wife of one of the deceased said that he had not mentioned to her that this was the work he was going. “he left very late in the evening, but he had told me he was meeting some one and I did not suspect. But he did not return even after midnight and I was worried, early in the morning, my neighbour informed me about this tragedy. I lost my mind, I did not even see his face, when I came back to my sense after more than a week, I was shown the news paper” she said, pointing a news article in a tamil daily with the faces of the three deceased. Breaking down in tears, she said her only aspiration is to see her children through good education so that they would never have to suffer this again.
Another woman worker, working in Vyasarpadi Railway station, recounted how they had to work through the night, every night clearing all the filth from the tracks. “We don’t have any equipment or safety materials. No proper gloves, no shoes or masks. We have to suffer this and we can’t sleep. But I don’t know any other work and I toil for a paltry Rs 160 a day. If I can get the compensation I would be able to set up some shop or petty business and leave this job forever.” The Indian Railways, inspite of many promises, remains the largest organization that continues to use insanitary toilets on its trains and force sanitation workers to clear tracks and platforms with no tools.
Samuel, state secretary of SKA, said that while the governments have continued to falsify surveys to claim there are no manual scavengers, they have continued to get grants from central government TADCO schemes for destroying insanitary toilets and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. “In some districts we had to identify insanitary and dry latrines and we broke them ourselves(Not clear). Our surveys have revealed over 3000 manual scavengers in TN. But when we identify them and ask the government to proceed with verification, government officials go to them, threaten them and get signatures to the contrary. Our members are really scared now to come out openly as the officials threaten them with arrest for being involved in such jobs.” Maintaining that the struggle is for Human dignity above all else, he appealed for the support of civil society for the yatra and highlighted the five demands of Yatris.
- An unconditional apology from the governments to the safai karamchari community for the historical injustice and humiliation
- The implementation of 2013 act to liberate and rehabilitate all manual scavengers without any further delay and missed deadlines.
- To end the deaths in sewer lines and septic tanks by modernizing and mechanizing the sanitation system.
- Payment of Supreme Court mandated RS 10 lakhs as compensation to kin of all those who died cleaning sewer lines since 1993.
- Enhancing the one time cash payment from the current Rs 40000 to Rs 2 lakhs.
Prof Anandhi, who was chairing the session, concluded by highlighting the importance of fraternity and human dignity, that is being lost in the perpetuation of this crime. MIDS students had collected over Rs 10000/- as support for the yatra from students and faculty members and this was presented to the members of SKA.
The yatra will reach Chennai on the evening of 13th Jan and there will be protest demonstration on 14th Jan, 10 am before the Collectors office (opposite Chennai Port Trust)