INDIA: Government dumps the Court’s Order in a sewer

A total of 180,657 rural households continue to engage in manual scavenging in India, despite the inhuman practice being repeatedly outlawed by the Parliament and Judiciary. This is the state a year after the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), a flagship scheme of the incumbent government, covering 4,041 statutory towns, aiming to clean the streets, roads, and infrastructure of the country. It remains a reality, two and a half years after the Supreme Court last outlawed the practice, fixing command responsibility with the chief executive officer (or equivalent authority) of civic bodies for continuation of the practice. 

The government knows well that manual scavenging continues and does so under its watch. The data informing the world about the continuation of manual scavenging in these 180,657 rural households comes from the recently released findings of the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 2011, conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development. The survey, a reliable sources of macro data on socio economic status of households, found the state of Maharashtra to be worst culprit in terms of manual scavenging, with Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tripura, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh being others where the practice is common. 

The continuation of manual scavenging does not have much to do with poverty in the state. Otherwise, more Karnataka and Punjab households would not engage in more manual scavenging than households in Uttar Pradesh. So what lies behind its continuance? 

The answer lies in the phantom limb of caste, which succeeds in mobilising the whole system against the victims: the manual scavengers. It is the continuation of casteism that flouts the categorical order of the Supreme Court with impunity and protects those responsible from prosecution. 

All these households are a part of some local body, such as a Panchayat, and do not exist one islands or on “no man’s lands”. Ending manual scavenging by demolishing dry latrines (and stopping cleaners from entering sewers) is therefore the primary responsibility of the chief executive officer of the concerned local body. By failing to prevent manual scavenging this officer is violating the Supreme Court order and must be prosecuted. But, has even one such officer across India been prosecuted so far? 

The subtext of the survey results are only telling the Dalits and the Judiciary that you can have your laws and your judgments, but the government and the entire bureaucratic edifice of this post-colonial state is immune and will keep violating them. 

The system has found yet another way to violate the Supreme Court Order and the dignity of human beings who have to continue work as manual scavengers. This is done by plain denial that manual scavenging continues in states as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Gujarat, Assam, and Manipur. This is exactly what these states did. Surveys after surveys of organizations like Garima Abhiyan and Safai Karmchari Andolan have exposed the lie. In fact, even the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India had pointed out the continuation of the practice in the states and identified 1,402 cases in its report tabled in the Gujarat Assembly in 2014. Add to this the deaths while cleaning sewers (outlawed in the same Supreme Court Order), which become known from time to time, and no Indian state can claim to be scavenging free. 

A crack down on the practice and those who force the manual scavengers to continue this work is overdue. It should begin with exemplary action against chief executive officers of civic bodies where households continue to engage in manual scavenging. Or can the Government of India, follow the states, and try and deny the facts in its own Surveys?

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