The gritty detail

Manual scavenging laws will need to be supported by better sanitation policies.

The recent passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill by Parliament is a welcome, long-overdue step in the right direction. The bill replaces the outdated and rarely implemented 1993 law, which purported to abolish manual scavenging. It has been passed primarily due to a sustained campaign by thousands of former women manual scavengers over the last several years, supported by civil society groups such as Navsarjan, Safai Karmachari Andolan and Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. The next and bigger challenge is to successfully implement this bill, for which these groups will need to maintain their struggle. India has a wonderful track record of passing pro-human rights legislation but a woeful record in implementing most of them. There is too much at stake to treat the passage of this bill as a victory and wind down the pressure for real change.

India's leaders have long acknowledged that there is a need for a fundamental change in the way in which the country treats its waste handlers. Mahatma Gandhi as well as Manmohan Singh labelled manual scavenging a "shame". The fact that two leaders, who are so far separated by history, decried a social practice using the same term tells us something about how incredibly resilient this problem is and how hard it is to come up with real solutions.

Manual scavenging is rooted in two very resilient structures, one social and the other of political economy. The social structure that buttresses manual scavenging is the caste system, which sanctions violence, discrimination, untouchability, stigma, and exclusion from social, economic and political power. Changes to this system have been very slow, especially in rural areas. Vast rural populations — concentrated in states such as Orissa, MP, UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan — continue to suffer because of domination by upper castes. Interestingly, these are the same states where almost 80 per cent of rural households do not have latrines, according to the 2011 census. Open defecation, a result of this lack of latrines, creates the need for manual cleaning of human waste. This, in turn, perpetuates the caste system. The manual scavenging crisis is worse in areas where caste relations remain powerful.

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