Indian Railways and the Scourge of Manual Scavenging

Abishek Saha and Sarah Hafeez (Students at Asian College of Journalism)

 “They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt.”—Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand.

Waking up at dawn everyday and going to clean up someone’s excreta is not an envious job. Forget the social discrimination and medical hazards, the very thought of the stink of heaped faeces going through one’s nostrils every morning is revolting. And yet, this is how around 6-7 lakh people (Dalits, mostly women and girls) in India earn their livelihood.

Manual Scavenging has been a practice coming down the ages. Its origins are unclear, but there are references in Alberuni’s India, which records the way of life in India in 1030 A.D, almost a millennium ago. He writes, “The people called Hâḍî, Ḍoma (Ḍomba), Caṇḍâla, and Badhatau (sic) are not reckoned amongst any caste or guild. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services. They are considered as one sole class, and distinguished only by their occupations.”

During the first half of the last century, though Mahatma Gandhi raised his voice against untouchability, he never came out forcefully for the total eradication of the practice of manual scavenging. Ridiculously enough Gandhi considered manual scavenging the ‘most honourable profession in the world’. Turning a blind eye to the existing social discrimination of manual scavengers, Gandhi claimed that scavenging is the same as mothering a child. Like a mother cleans her child, so does the manual scavenger Indian society.  In fact, he went on to say that manual scavenging is akin to something that a Brahmin would do easily. Gandhi’s views on manual scavenging have been incisively criticised by Ambedkar. Most of our understanding of the structural suppression of Dalits in Indian society comes from Ambedkar who talked about how the manual scavengers go on with their work because ‘they have no choice’.

Since then, the government has tried, albeit half-heartedly, to end this menace and the latest nail on the coffin was the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, passed by the Parliament this September.

The new bill, unlike an older one passed in 1993, has to be appreciated for widening the definition of manual scavengers, but social and political activists feel that it may still prove to be insufficient to address this problem. One such loophole in the bill is to do with the Indian Railways. (see this link for criticism of the 1993 act and the debates that led to the new act)

The Indian Railways, despite being a public sector entity, reportedly employs the highest number of manual scavengers in the country. In Chennai’s Central and Egmore Railway Stations manual scavengers are allegedly employed both directly and as contract workers by the Railways. M Nagraj, Health Inspector at Chennai Central, believes that the term ‘manual scavenger’ cannot be used for workers employed to clean excreta from tracks in Railways, because, according to him, “none them of use broom and bucket; they use water jets.”

Supparajan, a contract labourer with the Railways who runs the Amul store on Platform five at Chennai Central Station who is a also a member of the CITU affiliated Railway Contract Labour Union (RCLU), however, says that, “It’s still people who clean the excreta on the tracks. They do sometimes use pipes and jets to wash tracks but they use brooms and buckets as well.”

Pointing to Section 2(g) (b) of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which says that a person who cleans human excreta using protective gear will not be considered manual scavenger, social worker Samuel Sathyaseelan, says, “This use of ‘protective gear’ by the scavengers is an escape route for the government to continue using these workers rather than releasing them from the bondage of untouchability.” He further explains that while the new law had provision for ‘protective gear’ and ‘safety measures’, these provisions would only serve to perpetrate and justify the practice of manual scavenging.

Though the Act mentions the use of ‘protective gear’, it does not specify what qualifies as protective gear. Deepthi Sukumar, National Core Member of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA),a national movement committed to the total eradication of manual scavenging, says, “There is loss of human dignity even with protective gear. By throwing in words such as ‘protective gear’, the Supreme Court has destroyed the very spirit of the Act.”She also says that the Act says nothing about how we should work towards de-linking the practice of scavenging from caste issues and social discrimination.

Another major flaw in the new Act, which Bezwada Wilson, the founder of the SKA, brought out in an earlier media interview, is that, a clause in the bill allows the Ministry to decide when it wishes to notify the railways about the law.

Critics of the Act believe that the Parliament should decide the deadline for the implementation of the Act instead of the Railways, who are themselves the violators.The first Act against manual scavenging, passed in 1993, lacked in its very definition because it did not include the scavenging done in railways, manholes and septic tanks.

“Since the 1993 Act didn’t cover railways, the railways kept on using it even though the practice was actually banned by law,” says Nity Rajan, State Committee Member of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF).

The inclusion of Railways in the 2013 Act comes after a long fight by the SKA. The SKA had witnessed abysmal government inaction towards abolition of manual scavenging despite an Act being passed to the regard in 1993.The organisation, therefore, then proceeded to file a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2003, providing detailed statistics and photographic evidence.

“The PIL got considerable publicity. Newspapers like The Hindu and Times of India published articles and letters to the editor against scavenging,” Deepthi Sukumar says. She adds, “After the PIL the Supreme came down hard upon the government. And the government decided to work after the furore.”

Following the PIL, the Ministry of Railways was asked to file affidavits about the situation of manual scavenging in railways. According to a report published in 2012 the Railway Ministry’s claims did not match with statistical findings of other reports on the status of manual scavenging in the country. (See “Railways pulled over scavengers”)

It’s high time that we understand with total conviction that the practice of someone cleaning another’s excreta is simply not acceptable in India, more so in the 21st century, when technology in the country has become sophisticated enough to explore Mars. A government which is bent on becoming a global superpower should at first turn its eyes to a far more demanding need for technology for the development of the lowest rung in the country.

The focus should be on the total eradication of people employed to clean faeces, be it with a broom and bucket or water jets. Protective gear might liberate the cleaner from coming too close to the stinking excreta, but it doesn’t save him/her from humiliation and social discrimination.

But the truth in India is shocking. On one hand, the current Act which, as explained by several experts, leaves ample room for the government to play around the provisional loopholes to its advantage, and on the other, there are leaders like Narendra Modi, who once likened the experience of being a manual scavenger to that of a ‘spiritual experience’, the privilege of a ‘temple priest’, running for the Prime Minister’s post. (see this link for a more on this.)

Mr. Modi must understand that his ideas about manual scavengers are grossly skewed like those of millions of other Indians. Manual scavengers don’t continue as manual scavengers because they think it is a duty ‘bestowed upon them by God’. They do so because they have no way out. Long years of socio-economic discrimination have rendered them incapable of moving out of a social system like ours which forces them into pursuing manual cleaning of human excreta for a livelihood. They are a people who live out of manholes, drains and dry latrines only to help keep the likes of Mr Modi ‘clean’.

The sooner Indian society wakes up to the truth, the better.

For more information on the debates that led to the new Act and issues related to manual scavenging follow this link: Thozhilalar Koodam

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