No succour for manual scavengers

Insight

Civic bodies get them to do filthy jobs, but deny compensation when they are taken ill or die

In its reply to an RTI application in April 2017, the ministry of social justice and empowerment claimed that 239 of the 726 reported manual scavengers in Karnataka had been rehabilitated under a self-employment scheme during the past three years. But the reality is quite different.

The 2011 census revealed that there were 15,375 identified manual scavengers in Karnataka. Of these, 289 were identified to be in Bangalore. A mere 1.5% of the manual scavengers in Karnataka have been rehabilitated. The census further revealed that 13.6% of households in Karnataka needed human effort to remove excreta.

Karnataka practices what Gandhi called the “national shame of India”. Manual scavenging is a reality in technology hub Bengaluru. Government contractors routinely hire manual scavengers to do work that nobody wants to do. Only dalits are employed.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, bans their hiring and seeks to rehabilitate the people involved in the practice.

Harsh Kugwe, a journalist who has extensively worked on this issue, told Insight: “The main problem lies in civic bodies denying the existence of the practice, and refusing any compensation to manual scavengers or their families. It is tough to figure out the actual population involved in this practice.”

The rehabilitation procedure depends upon execution, “which terribly fails in India” Kugwe added.

The budget for the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, which includes financial help, fell nearly by 98% because of low utilization. From a budget of Rs 448 crore in 2014-2015, it was increased to Rs 470 crore in 2015-2016, but has now been reduced to Rs 5 crore in 2017-2018. Just Rs 56 crore was spent in four years.

“There are many policies which seek to prohibit the practice, but their implementation fails consistently,” K.B. Obalesh, state convener, Safai Karmachari Kavala Samithi, said. According to the organization, the number of manual scavengers is much higher than the number the government projects. “The number projected by the government makes no sense; it is far from the reality. The truth is that they have been neglected in the aspects of caste hierarchy and social dignity.”

The major problem is identification of manual scavengers. Obalesh blamed bureaucrats for this, and said manual scavengers can be identified and rehabilitated if there is a will to do so.

According to an article in The Times of India, statistics provided by the Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karmacharis show that 68 people died while cleaning manholes, dry latrines and sewage pits across Karnataka in 10 years since 2008. Most deaths are regarded as accidents.

Activist Shakuntala said: “The government tries its best to not recognize these people as manual scavengers. I have seen more than 30 young men dying after getting involved in manual scavenging. The situation is getting worse by the day.”

Krishna, 25, the manual scavenger who died on April 27, leaving behind a family of five devastated.

Krishna, 25 has worked as a manual scavenger in and around Nayandahalli for eight years. Though his work had left him with multiple-organ failure, he had not yet been identified as a manual scavenger. “We can’t take him to hospital as we don’t have money, and there is no help from the government. Hospitals ask for Rs 30 lakh. If help doesn’t arrive fast, we can’t save him,” Shakuntaka said.

With a family of five, Krishna was bedridden for a year. Devoid of proper treatment, he seemed to be slowly approaching death.

When Insight met him, Krishna broke down. “Nobody cares. People for whom I went into filth every day are not even taking our calls. It is better to die than live like this,” he said. His elder brother shared: “He was very young when he started manual scavenging. He would get intoxicated before starting work as he said it helped him divert his mind from unbearable stink of human feces. He is facing consequences of the practice.”

Mani, another manual scavenger, opened up after some persuasion. “My legs are infected. I am no longer able to work. Neither the contractors nor the government have talked about my treatment.  Who should we go to? The contractors even threatened us of consequences.”

Y.J. Rajendra, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties thinks only mechanization can put an end to manual scavenging. “Barely building toilets will not help. The toilets should be equipped with proper mechanized cleaning techniques, which will save hundreds from the curse of this practice.”

The BWSSB is criticized because its contractors hire manual scavengers to clean sewage-treatment plants. “The BWSSB has 40 huge treatment plants. Around 400 people are employed in these. These workers are literally swimming in human excreta,” Clifton Rosario, an advocate and activist was quoted as saying by Deccan Herald. The water board refused to comment on the issue, citing the assembly elections.

The Hindu reported on March 7, 2017, three men employed by a BWSSB contractor died after entering a manhole at C.V. Raman Nagar. In 2018, six manual scavengers have died while doing their work.

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