Manual scavenging: Make new plan work

Manual scavenging is a terrible and shameful practice that has existed in the country for generations and governments and administrations, from the central level to the lowest rungs, should be blamed for the continuation of the practice.

A newly formulated draft national plan for elimination of manual scavenging is expected to achieve what many earlier plans, laws and actions failed to do in the last many decades. Manual scavenging is a terrible and shameful practice that has existed in the country for generations and governments and administrations, from the central level to the lowest rungs, should be blamed for the continuation of the practice. The employment of manual scavengers was prohibited in 1993, but the practice continued. It was made an offence punishable with two years’ imprisonment in 2013. Till now, no convictions have been made under the law, though over 1,500 manual scavengers have died since then while working in sewers, septic tanks and pits. Over 50 deaths have been reported this year. Even government organisations have been guilty of violating the ban and officials have often been complicit in the offence.  

The new plan seeks to amend the law to make it mandatory for all urban local bodies to use only machines to clean the sewers. This will be applicable to private parties, too. Municipalities will be given low-cost and long-term loans to buy the machines. The top officials of local bodies, including the municipal commissioner or the district magistrate, will be held responsible for any sewer deaths in their area. If only the ministry of social justice was involved in the campaign and actions against manual scavenging till now, three other ministries will also be involved now. The success of the plan will depend on how well it is implemented. The law itself had flaws and loopholes, and the lack of determination and commitment to the cause contributed to the failure. So, the formulation of another plan and stricter provisions of law may themselves not be enough to stop the practice. 

Officials have said that the practice has continued because no alternative was available to the employment of scavengers for sewer cleaning. It is anybody’s guess whether the new plan will work, because local bodies will certainly have difficulties in buying the machines and putting them to use. Most manual scavengers are from the lowest levels of the caste hierarchy and so there are prejudices and stigma attached to the work. A large number of them are women. All these are major challenges. The government and the society at large should be ashamed that the degrading and dehumanising practice continues despite all attempts to eradicate it. The need is not only to put an end to the practice but also to rehabilitate those who have been engaged in the work, and who know no other work. 

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