You owe us an apology: Safai Karamcharis
In the presence of hundreds of protestors and supporters from different organisations and networks, a group of safai karamchari women burned the baskets of indignities amidst slogan shouting and took a vow that they will not take up brooms and basket again as they wished to live a life of dignity and respect. Dr.Umakant, an independent Researcher and Human Rights Advocate, reports.
More than 500 safai karamchari workers staged a protest sit-in at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on August 07, 2013 to demand an end to the inhuman practice of manual scavenging. The protest was organised by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), which has been spearheading the campaign against manual scavenging in India for over 25 years. Protesters came from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and other states and demanded an apology from the Prime Minister. They also urged the government to provide them with dignified rehabilitation, in addition to speeding the passage of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012. The Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the SKA has entered the tenth year of hearings in the Supreme Court and the final verdict is genuinely awaited.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government in its first and second term made promises to eradicate manual scavenging and also showed its readiness to rehabilitate millions of safai karamcharis across the country. While the 1993 Act that declared this practice unconstitutional has proved to be quite ineffective, the new 2012 Bill is before the India Parliament and awaits debate and adoption. The current monsoon session of the Parliament has listed this important bill to be taken up for debate and adoption. But the manner in which the functioning the Parliament is being disrupted repeatedly, it is feared that not only this bill but other equally important bills may not get debated and passed at all.
Mr. D. Raja, Member of Parliament (Communist Party of India), while addressing the gathering, reiterated that manual scavenging is a national shame that has continued even after six decades of country’s independence. He stressed that a bill of such importance should be passed as a priority, without further delay. The protest at Jantar Mantar also saw the participation of several other prominent people, including Mr. M.B. Rajesh, Member of Parliament [Communist Party of India (Marxist)], Mr. Harsh Mandar, Mr. Nikhil Dey, Dr. Reetika Khera, Ms. Bhasha Singh, Dr. SDJM Prasad, Dr. Umakant, Ms. Kavita Srivastava, Ms. Usha Ramanathan, Ms. Deepti Sukumar, Dr. Y. Moses, other activists and safai kaaramcharis themselves.
Mr. Bezwada Wilson, the National Convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) reminded the gathering that, “We are fighting for our dignity. We have been suffering since centuries and have now broken our silence”. He further said, “It is the responsibility of the Government to take care of our problems, but so far very little has been done in this regard. He demanded that the Government should come out with a package of Rs. 10,000 Crore for overall rehabilitation of those still engaged in manual scavenging and also for those who have left this job but are in a pitiable condition because of the stigma attached with this dehumanising work. “The survey, which is being carried out in several states must be broad-based in its approach to cover even those who are engaged in sewerage cleaning and all other types of filth cleaning jobs. Nothing less than a complete eradication of the practice and complete rehabilitation of safai karamcharis would be acceptable,” concluded Wilson.
The memorandum that has been submitted to the Prime Minister of India for his consideration and immediate action makes a plea for an early adoption of the new bill in the current monsoon session. It states that the rehabilitation of manual scavengers by the Government Officials must be done with speed and sincerity and strongly demands the PM’s personal attention and intervention. Other demands articulated encompass issues such as – the compensation amount should be enhanced to Rs. One Lakh as against Rs. 20, 000/. which is given to those who have been identified as manual scavengers; the sewerage workers who lose their life while cleaning the sewage and pits should get compensation of Rs. 10 Lakhs and at least one member of their family should get a government job. In their submission to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the SKA had demanded the inclusion of manual scavengers at railway stations. Since this aspect has not been included in the new bill, its inclusion is sought this time through the Prime Minister’s intervention. Additionally, the memorandum demands that the Prime Minister should apologise on behalf of the nation for all the indignities that safai karamcharis have suffered for centuries as a result of descent-based occupation and untouchability imposed by caste system in the society.
Mr. Bezwada Wilson towards the end of the protest expressed his apprehension about the fate of this new bill and warned that, if the Government fails to get this bill adopted in next three months, then hundreds and thousands of safai karamcharis and their supporters would picket the Indian Parliament on the first day of its next session.
This article was originally published in the web edition of Hard News Magazine, dated August 08, 2013, under a different title: ‘Stop Manual Scavenging’