Dalit problems will not be solved by avoiding the rehabilitation issue
In the last five years of the Modi government, there has been no movement even on assistance and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. In fact, in the interim budget, the Centre has reduced by more than half the allocation for rehabilitating manual scavengers.
On February 24, Prime Minister Modi washed the feet of five sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. I reacted on Twitter immediately: “Clean your mind not our feet, Mr. PM! Highest form of humiliation. 1.6 lac women still forced to clean shit, not a single word in five years. What a shame!”
Why am I so appalled by this ?
It’s because I believe the PM has not only perpetuated a historical wrong but also undermined the Dalit community. It’s because the Indian State has done nothing to end manual scavenging, the practice of cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta from dry latrines or sewers. This is in brazen violation of Article 17 and 23 of the Constitution. There are 1.65 million manual scavengers, mainly women, in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra and West Bengal. This is a vulnerable group, and the government has to take responsibility for their rehabilitation. But this is not happening. Manual handling of excreta was outlawed in 1993. However, it was only after an amendment in 2013 that its risky form, cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, was recognised as manual scavenging.
In 2018, an inter-ministerial task force said 53,236 people are still involved in manual scavenging in India, a fourfold rise from the 13,000-odd such workers accounted for in 2017. This is a gross underestimation as it includes data from only 121 of the more than 600 districts. It also does not include those involved in cleaning sewers and septic tanks, and data from the railways, the largest employer of manual scavengers. The states are in denial mode: of the 53,236 identified in the survey, only 6,650 have been confirmed officially by states. By doing so, the states are just perpetuating a heinous practice.
In the last five years of the Modi government, there has been no movement even on assistance and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. In fact, in the interim budget, the Centre has reduced by more than half the allocation for rehabilitating manual scavengers. Only Rs 30 crore has been set aside for the scheme for the next financial year. The budget for the ongoing financial year, which will end next month, had earmarked Rs 70 crore, according to the revised estimates for 2018-19. Under a rehabilitation law, an immediate assistance of Rs 40,000 has to be given to a manual scavenger. The money that has been allocated for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers is not enough to rehabilitate even 300 manual scavengers with alternative jobs. The government has not popularised the scheme for loans and skill training.
Sewer deaths have also been continuing in the country. On average, one person has died every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, according to the numbers collated by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis — the statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers. In 2017, there were 137 deaths, 105 in 2018, and, in 2019, already 11 people have died. Why has the government failed to take any steps to prevent such deaths?
The government has done nothing for the sanitation workers in the past five years. This showboating by Prime Minister Modi at the Kumbh will not solve the problem of the Dalits; in fact, it only perpetuates the injustice that has been happening for 5,000 years. This also shows that he is in denial of the real problem. I feel by washing the feet of sanitation workers, he is actually glorifying the practice of manual scavenging instead of focusing on this society’s caste/patriarchy conspiracy. By not talking about the plight of the sanitation workers, he is trying to divert the attention of the people from the real issue. I completely disagree with this kind of attitude.
An elected representative has to find a political solution to such a problem; the solution Modi is giving has no meaning. We are all citizens of India and our relationship is based on equality.
The Dalits will not get anything from this gesture, but the PM will earn praise.
(Bezwada Wilson is one of the founders and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan)
Courtesy: By Bezwada Wilson / The Hindustan Times