Manual scavenging is illegal and yet our public authorities continue to force it
Shishir Tripathi | July 15, 2015
An American president once said that freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity. But in the dark-suffocating manholes of indignity to which thousands of people are subjected to, in course of their duty of cleaning human waste, there is not even a ray a hope.
Last week I was travelling from Delhi to my hometown in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As I waited for my train which was late by an hour, I cursed the Indian railways for its complete disregard for punctuality. It was a humid evening, all those waiting on the platform were sweating profusely and some of them joined me in criticising the railways in failing to run its trains on time.
As the discussion progressed, one of them said in a sharp, mocking tone, "They talk of running bullet trains, when they can't run the existing ones on time.”
"Look at the tracks, they are so filthy,” another passenger said, while pointing out to the heaps of human excreta lying on the tracks. We all looked at it with disgust but were little bothered to think who will clean it.
After I boarded the train I thought of it and was reminded of an incident that took place in Chandigarh on May 30. Three sanitation workers had died due to suffocation while cleaning a sewer line in Sector 47. They entered the sewer line, one after another, through a 25-foot-deep manhole, using a ladder and died while doing their job.
They were employed by a private contractor and soon after their death, the blame game started. While it was debated as to who employed them, the bigger and more important question remained unaddressed: Why a human being is made to suffer such an indignity of dying in a manhole?
It is an established medical fact that toxic fumes the 'safai karamcharis' are made to breath ensure they don’t live beyond their late forties.
The law prohibiting manual scavenging called The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act came into force in 1993. In spite of several orders passed by various courts in country restraining the public authorities from engaging people in this act, there have been numerous instances in the last few years, where people have died performing this act of utmost indignity.
It is shameful that after almost seven decades of independence, manual scavenging continues with many central and state government departments employing manual scavengers in violation of the 1993 Act.
And perhaps the railways is one of the worst offenders as the open discharge system of toilets in train carriages results in excreta having to be manually lifted off the tracks.
While rejecting this act on legal ground will call for nuanced arguments, resorting to minimum humanity to reject it will require very little thinking.
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