Long overdue

The bill to eliminate manual scavenging and rehabilitate scavengers, which has been introduced in the Lok Sabha, is another legislative attempt to eliminate this inhuman and shameful practice.

But it is not for lack of law that the practice has continued in the country.  There is a legislation passed by parliament in 1993 which bans manual scavenging but it has not been implemented with will and sincerity.

The Supreme Court has also admonished the government a number of times for the lackadaisical manner in which it dealt with this practice. The introduction of the bill is perhaps the result of the ultimatum given by the court to the government last week. It seeks to impose more stringent penalties for violation of its provisions, sets a deadline for ending the practice and envisages a rehabilitation scheme for scavengers.

There are lakhs of dry latrines in the country which are cleaned by scavengers. Septic tanks and sewers are also cleaned manually in many parts of the country. For most manual scavengers it is a traditional occupation and they do not, or are not allowed to, find other means of employment. Since most of them belong to the disadvantaged sections of society, there is a strong element of caste oppression also in the practice.

The practice will not go away by just banning it. Among those guilty of engaging manual scavengers are government bodies, corporations and panchayats. Railways are a big offender and it is doubtful if it can put an end to the extensive practice in a short time. The bill has made the offence non-bailable and prescribes summary trial of offenders.

The government should have the will to make officials accountable for their offence.
The existing legislation, with all the penalties it prescribes, was almost farcical. Even though it is about two decades since it was enacted, no convictions have yet taken place under that law.  That being the case, will the new law work? Public pressure and a real threat of judicial action should force the authorities into taking the law seriously.

Manual scavenging is not just an insulting and dehumanising practice. It also poses a threat to the health of those who are engaged in it. Rehabilitation of scavengers and their families through training for other occupations should receive attention. They will have to be provided with adequate means of livelihood.

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