“Tell me why’d anyone want to pick up excreta with their hands for a living?” asked Munnibai Dumane, an ex-night-soil gatherer from Dewas in Madhya Pradesh who has given it up two years ago.
“People are forced into this when all other doors to earn are closed. I felt my dignity was more important than money and braved violence from both my village and in-laws when I refused to go,” the feisty 48-year-old told a national conference on communities in night-soil gathering which will look at dynamics and the way forward at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
The two-day conference, sponsored by ICSSR, which began today, has brought together activists, academics, research scholars, writers, advocates, and a few liberated night-soil gatherers from 12 states across the country.
“On a day when India’s making headlines for successfully testing an inter-continental missile that can wipe out all of Pakistan and a better part of China,” Robert F Kennedy Human Rights awardee Martin Macwan of the Navsirjan Trust in Sanand Gujarat lamented, “it is a travesty that we’ve to repeatedly raise an issue like this which is resolvable if the government wants.”
He also did not forget to target Gujarat CM (and BJP PM-race nominee) Narendra Modi for his apathy. “When Tatas came to Gujarat with their Nano plant, as part of the state support agreement in 2008, Modi’s government offered a loan of Rs 10,0000 crore at 0.10 per cent annual interest. Besides, the company was given a window of 10 years for repayment to begin. Yet when it comes to rehabilitating night-soil gatherers the same government demands 7% interest!”
Over a million Dalits are engaged in manual scavenging in India. In an irony, the government has set deadlines a whopping 15 times for complete eradication of the practice. It has never been able to meet them. March 31, 2012 was the last such deadline.
In fact data compiled by Census 2011 on the type of latrine facility within households reveals there are over 7.4 lakh households across the country where ‘night soil is removed by humans’. This does not include households where ‘night soil is disposed into open drain’ (over 12.33 lakh households) and ‘night soil is serviced by animals’ (over 4.93 lakh) that are most likely to engage manual scavenging services subsequently. Except Chandigarh, Sikkim, Goa and Lakshwadeep about 25 lakh households are still using dry (non-flush) latrines, employing manual scavengers directly or indirectly.
Bezwada Wilson of New Delhi’s Safai Karmachari Andolan wondered why there has been not single case registered in 20 years under the ‘Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act 1993.’ “This shows the level of seriousness when it comes to implementation of the laws to protect the marginalised trapped in this caste/descent-based occupation.”
The government recently conceded that existing law failed to address the issue and got new legislation, ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2012’ passed in the parliament during the current monsoon session.
Dr Shaileshkumar Darokar, Assistant Professor from the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policies at TISS hoped the conference will help create a national alliance of social activists from night-soil gathering communities. “We want to particularly focus on women who form the marginalised among these marginalised and discuss dignified employment options for them.”