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Right To Live With Dignity

Right To Live With Dignity

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the Global Goalkeeper Award in recognition of his efforts in providing safe sanitation in India. Yes, Swacch Bharat Mission, launched in 2014 to primarily bring about an improvement in the general quality of life in the rural areas by promoting cleanliness, hygiene and eliminating open defecation is showing appreciable results.

Notably 4265 cities, according to reports, are now open defecation free (ODF). Nearly 64.32 lakh individual household toilets and 5.45 lakh seats of community/public toilets have been constructed during the last 5 years. Further 377 cities have been certified ODF+ and another 167 cities ODF++. Sanitation coverage has increased to 98.2% as on 31 March 2019 from 51.80% as on 1 April 2016. In solid waste management, more than 91% of wards have door-to-door collection, approximately 56% of the total waste generated is being processed and 64% of wards reportedly are practicing source segregation. Kudos for the good work!

At the same time, the cause for concern is the d ata collected by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) which shows that since the beginning of 2017, on an average, one person dies every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. According to NCSK, 70 sewer deaths have been recorded so far this year across 20 states with Haryana topping the list with 12 such deaths.

It is rather sad that manual scavenging is still being practiced although banned by law. Said to be in existence for centuries, the inhuman practice of manually removing night soil, which involves removal of human excrements from dry toilets with bare hands, brooms or metal scrappers, carrying such excrements/baskets to dumping sites for disposal is not only diabolic but as such is the highest degree of human rights violation. A manual scavenger is defined as a person employed for "manually carrying human excreta",  and "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which human excreta from insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track, …before the excreta fully decomposes…"

In a bid to liberate the manual scavengers from such inhuman task, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was enforced which prohibited construction and or maintenance of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. However, with the 2011 Census reporting the existence of about 26 lakhs insanitary latrines in the country, the Government enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 to eliminate manual scavenging and insanitary latrines besides provide for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers through a multi-pronged strategy consisting of legislative and programmatic interventions. An insanitary latrine", is one which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, before complete decomposition, either in situ or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed. The good news is that most of these insanitary latrines have since been converted into sanitary latrines under Swachh Bharat Mission.

Under the Act, employment of any person for manual scavenging is prohibited and contravention is punishable with one year imprisonment or with fine up to fifty thousand rupees or with both for the first contravention and for any subsequent contravention with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees or with both.

Effective 6 December 2013 till December last year, 13 States reported the identification of 14,043 manual scavengers. Also another Government sponsored National Survey in 163 districts of 17 States, where a large number of insanitary latrines had been converted into sanitary latrines under Swachh Bharat Mission, nearly 25,015 manual scavengers were identified. Totally as per official statistics up to last December about 39,058 manual scavengers exist. As per the Socio-Economic and Caste Census-2011, about 1,68,066 households have declared manual scavenging as their occupation.

In terms of rehabilitation, identified manual scavengers are provided a onetime cash assistance of Rs 40,000/- plus skill development training with a monthly stipend of Rs 3000/-.

More recently, making scathing remarks on the practice of manual scavenging, the Supreme Court observed that nowhere in the world people are sent to gas chambers to die. The Apex Court questioned the Centre as to why proper protective gear like mask and oxygen cylinders were not being provided to people engaged in manual cleaning of sewage or manholes.

Undoubtedly, sanitation is the key to health and well-being of millions of our people, especially women and children. However, equally important is providing environmentally safe working conditions for tens of thousands of our safai karmacharis across cities and towns. Yes, their right to live with dignity must be supported by each one of us. Manual scavenging in its entirety has to be eliminated. The sooner, the better!

(Published on 30th September 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 40)