Wednesday, October 27, 2010

[ZESTCaste] It's shortlived rehabilitation for scavengers in Ambala

It's shortlived rehabilitation for scavengers in Ambala

Vrinda Sharma

Back in May 2010, sixty Dalits, who had worked their entire lives as
manual scavengers, burned the baskets they used for collecting human
excreta outside the District Collector's office here. They had just
been employed as sweepers by the local administration under a
rehabilitation scheme. Five months later, all of them are without
work, having been suspended, astonishingly, for not working hard

"It took us a lot of courage to set those baskets on fire and announce
that we were free. But now, for many of us the only way to feed our
family is to pick up the same basket again," said a disheartened

Difficult, demeaning

The district administration's charge against the suspended Dalits is
that they were "not working properly, being non-serious and lazy." But
the fact remains that they had spent the better part of their lives in
one of most difficult and demeaning occupations — the inhuman practice
of manually disposing of human excreta from dry latrines with brooms
and baskets, work which violates human dignity and which is today
banned by the statute.

"It is amusing that some time ago the government claimed that the
district was free of manual scavenging. Now they say that no one in
the administration is lazy except the manual scavengers! At least now
they accept that the obnoxious practice still exists and by not
eradicating it they are violating the Employment of Manual Scavengers
and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993," said
Rajkumar, State president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Collector S.P. Srow said that even though over 200 manual scavengers
were offered jobs on a salary of Rs. 4,400 a month, they did not work
properly and hence had to be fired. "It was ensured that they were
rehabilitated even though the Supreme Court gave only guidelines and
not directions. I made sure that they were employed as sweepers but
they were not working at all and it would have been wrong to waste
government money on them anymore."

The Collector said he condemned manual scavenging and wished that the
practice were eradicated. "Even today if they give an affidavit saying
they will work wholeheartedly, I will happily make arrangements for
their employment."

A few women who had left scavenging after decades started the
degrading work again because they are the sole breadwinners. "But we
talked to them, made them realise that resuming the inhuman act will
lead to greater health problems for themselves and be an impediment to
a thousand others who are trying to end this practice once and for
all. Finally, they pledged that they would die rather than contemplate
manual scavenging as a job option," said another woman, who had left
the job.

Asked why the manual scavengers were employed only as sweepers, the
Collector said: "There is an obvious lack of education and skill among
the women but they were employed as sweepers because the
administration needed more sweepers at that time." He did not respond
to a query how the need for sweepers was being met in their absence.

Occupational dignity

"The least that can be done is to provide a dignified occupation for
them. A few months as sweeper can only be a temporary relief, not a
sustainable rehabilitation package for the entire family," said Wilson
Bezwada, president of SKA, who has spearheaded the fight against
manual scavenging and is now leading the Samajik Parivarthan Yatra, a
strategic programme of bus trips from five different corners of India,
through 20 States, culminating in New Delhi.

The aim of the yatra is to motivate and inspire others who are still
engaged in manual scavenging to free themselves.

"Apart from a rehabilitation package to ensure a dignified livelihood,
free education should be provided to those many generations of a
scavenging family in order to ensure that the coming generations do
not fall into the trap of poverty and caste," said Mr. Bezwada.

"Instead of giving them grants for permanent employment, the
administration employed them [the Dalits] before floods hit the area,
made them clean the gutters and the sewerage system, which is as bad
as manual scavenging. Then it claims that they are not working," said
Mr. Rajkumar. "For the satisfaction of the Collector, I gave an
affidavit taking responsibility that the women would work. Also,
residents signed that they were working properly, but none of the
submissions helped. We met the Haryana Chief Minister, who gave us a
patient hearing, but nothing was done," he added.

"There is a law which makes this work illegal but the world gives
enough reasons for an uneducated poor Dalit to still do scavenging,"
said Mr. Bezwada." Manual scavenging is integrally linked with the
caste system and is imposed on certain Dalit sub-caste groups.
Invariably, women, comprising 82 per cent of the caste, carry the

Apology demanded

The andolan demands an official apology from the Government of India
for having violated human dignity and human rights of safai
karamcharis for so many years. Other basic demands include demolition
of dry latrines and punishment to dry latrine owners and all those who
forced safai karamcharis to clean those latrines under the SC/ST
Atrocity Prohibition Act, 1989.


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