On April 4, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) released their manifesto ahead of the 2019 General Elections in New Delhi. SKA is an organisation that works towards the elimination of manual scavenging and this is the first time they have released a charter for their demands. The organisation carried out meetings and consultative surveys in over ten states before finally publishing the manifesto.

The Problem

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More than half a million people in India make a living by cleaning, carrying and disposing off untreated human excreta. It is a dehumanising, caste-based, unsafe practice because sanitation workers in India do not have access to proper equipment. Manual scavenging was outlawed in India in 1993, and another law in 2013 reinforced this ban and defined cleaning of sewers and septic tanks as manual scavenging.

SKA, the organisation that works towards the elimination of manual scavenging, carried out meetings and consultative surveys in over ten states before finally publishing the manifesto.

However, according to data by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, there have been 634 deaths related to manual scavenging since 1993, with Tamil Nadu reporting the highest number of such deaths at 194, followed by Gujarat 122, Karnataka 68 and Uttar Pradesh 51. These deaths are due to being asphyxiated by poisonous gases present inside the sewers.In fact, repeated handling of human excreta without protection leads to respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia, jaundice, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning. Majority of manual scavengers are women and Dalits.

Image Credit: Times of India

The government has also in the past “rehabilitated” 11,598 scavengers with a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000. But as The Wire‘s report from Rajasthan’s Dausa has shown, even the few manual scavengers who received this money from the government continued in this line of work in order to earn a livelihood.

Also Read: #StopKillingUs: India Rises Against Manual Scavenging

Their Demands

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The Preamble of the manifesto demands an apology from the Prime Minister for the apathy towards continuous deaths of workers in sewers. “This is an attempt to reinforce our right to have a life with dignity and to lay down a detailed roadmap towards it,” the Preamble states.

Bezwada Wilson, the leader of SKA,told TOI, “1,821 citizens of the country have been killed in septic tanks and sewers and there is a death every third day but politicians are not bothered. We are not requesting them but ordering them to take action.” He posted various demands on twitter with the hashtag #StopKillingUs.

The Preamble of the manifesto demands an apology from the Prime Minister for the apathy towards continuous deaths of workers in sewers.

The sanitation workers have sought the introduction of a unique right to live card (RL-21) which further gives way to five separate rights: freedom from manual scavenging, rehabilitation in non-sanitation sector, right to live with dignity, right to get educated, and right to healthcare. It also demanded that 1% of the Union budget be exclusively allocated for the welfare of manual scavengers, including their liberation and rehabilitation benefits. The SKA also asked for a separate parliamentary session on manual scavenging deaths and rehabilitation efforts.

Previous Response To Grievances

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Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Kumbh Mela and washed the feet of five manual scavengers. In the past, he has called the work of manual scavengers a “spiritual experience”. Not only is this extremely unsympathetic, but it is also a disdainful manner of treating a community who has been living and dying six feet under for decades. Wilson immediately countered this by saying “Clean your mind, not our feet.”

The BJP manifesto has a section called Sabka Vikas which says, “We will make adequate provisions for personal safety equipment and accelerate the adoption of mechanized cleaning to ensure occupational health and safety for Safai Karamcharis.” The language is extremely vague and clearly lacks promise. It does not consider doing away with the practice but merely promises to improve the working conditions.

The Congress manifesto fares slightly better; it is included in the section called ‘Water Management, Sanitation and Hygiene’, according to which, “Congress promises to end the evil of manual scavenging in 3 years. Every manual scavenger will be rehabilitated, re-skilled, provided a job and assured a life of dignity and safety. The Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act, 2013 will be strictly implemented and any person employing anyone for manual scavenging shall be punished. We will allocate sufficient funds to enable the procurement of machines that will clean sewers and septic tanks and remove human waste.” It does cover a lot of the demands listed in the SKA manifesto. The first step is acknowledging that it is an unfair, derogatory, evil practice rather than taking the Gandhian way out by calling untouchables Harijans And asking them to clean your toilet in the same sentence.

Also read: Women And Minorities: Here’s What The New Congress Manifesto Has to Say

Deepthi Sukumar, National Convenor of SKA, told NewsClick, “Even after seeing our plight, all the governments, both Centre and state, chose to remain silent, and especially the Prime Minister. As long as we are being forced into manual scavenging, to risk our lives for this dangerous occupation, just because of our castes, this country cannot be considered a democracy.”

This manifesto needs to be seen as more than just a list of demands, it is a matter of life and death. The practice for manual scavenging should not be up for discussion anymore. The government cannot wash their hands off (in this case, feet) the issue if they want to stay in power.

Featured Image Source: NDTV

About the author(s)

Srishti is a media student at TISS, Bombay. The best compliment she's ever received is "Madam, you write well and all but aap poori zindagi single rahoge"

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