Even as actor-activist Aamir Khan on Monday met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to raise the age-old issue of manual scavenging, the government said it is taking up the matter as "top priority" and a draft bill with stricter provisions on eradicating the dehumanising practise and rehabilitating the people involved is to be introduced in the monsoon session of parliament.
According to Census 2011, there are around seven lakh manual scavengers in the country engaged in the task of removing and transporting night soil. Of these, almost five lakhs are in the rural areas and two lakhs in the urban areas.
"Yes, we know it persists, and we are taking up this matter as top priority. The draft for the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012 is under circulation to the concerned ministries and departments. We intend to introduce it in the monsoon session of parliament. Everything is in the process," Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Mukul Wasnik said.
"We are working out a survey of the manual scavengers in the country. Data on manual scavengers would be available soon," the minister added.
Elaborating on the rehabilitation of scavengers, the minister said: "The rehabilitation scheme is being implemented through state channelising agencies. Whenever a state government demands funds for rehabilitation programme, the amount will be sanctioned as per its proposal."
According to Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a voluntary organisation working for manual scavengers, the funds for rehabilitation have been almost tripled fromRs.1.36 crore in 2007-08 toRs.3.43 crore in 2010-11.
Aamir Khan, who highlighted the issue in a recent episode of his popular television programme Satyameva Jayate, met the Prime Minister and Wasnik over the issue on Monday. Meanwhile, around 200 scavengers from across Maharashtra protested in Mumbai to demand an end to the pernicious practice.
The protesters, led by a social group Campaign Against Manual Scavenging in Maharashtra, are demanding alternate and dignified jobs, decent housing and education.
Highlighting their plight, Sumitra, a manual scavenger from Nand Nagri, north Delhi, said: "I don't have a choice. I'm at the absolute bottom of the society, the job came as a legacy. But I don't want my children to touch these baskets. During rains it is terrible doing this filthy job."
According to the census, 23 lakh of the country's total population use dry or non-flush latrines and over a lakh defecate in open spaces.
Though the government has enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, according to which construction of dry latrines and employment of scavengers to clean it would invite imprisonment up to a one year and a fine ofRs.2,000 or both. The Act has not been effectively implemented since its formulation 19 years ago.
The National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi had been stressing for years on the need to come up with a stricter law and Gandhi had also written to the prime minister in October 2010 to take immediate action.
Stressing on the need for a stronger law, former NAC member Harsh Mander said: "The 1993 law is weak, it needs to be replaced. The NAC has been stressing for a new law and a stronger bill to eradicate the inhuman practice, which persists in India despite being banned. We need a stronger law, as it is not just a sanitation issue, but a question of fundamental rights and dignity."
The Delhi Commission for Safai Karmcharis says the proposed bill which is supposed to include emancipation of manual scavengers should include in its ambit all forms of sanitary workers such as sewage cleaners and septic tank cleaners.
"Since sewer workers have to enter manholes filled with fermented faeces and are also at risk, they should be covered by the bill. This practice is still prevalent under official patronage at all levels. The new bill should emancipate sanitary workers of all levels," Harnam Singh, chairman of the Delhi Commission for Safai Karmcharis, said.
Accusing the government of not being serious about the issue, D. Raja, national secretary, Communist Party of India (CPI) told IANS: "Despite several legislations and an Act, manual scavenging continues in the country and is a national shame. This indicates the callousness of the government. Around 19 years ago, the government has created an Act and now it is saying they will introduce a bill. This is just a question of passing time."
He also said the CPI had suggested that the government call a meeting of chief ministers of those states where manual scavenging is prevalent to work on measures to eradicate it.
"A law, a new bill or giving money to the state governments will not eradicate the disgraceful practice. The central government must make sure that state governments have some accountability in eradicating the practise. They should rope in good NGOs and penetrate to the grass-root level," Bindeswar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International said.
Source: India Today