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Is there a silver lining for Scavengers…?

The most beautiful part of life is that we live a different day every day. Last week may have been the worst, but we can still look forward to the dawn of a new day. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for Safai Karamcharis or the scavengers? Let’s find out…...

“Swachh Bharat mission is beyond politics. It is inspired by patriotism and not politics…Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of an India which was not only free but also clean and developed…. He secured freedom for Mother India. Now it is our duty to serve Mother India by keeping the country neat and clean…. Everybody before us has worked for it…. Who was successful, who was not… Let us not get into who has done it, who has not. We should work responsibly”- PM Modi while launching ‘Swatch Bharat Mission’

A week passed. But my heart still felt heavy and burdened with the reverberation. The queries did not seem to end…. “when it was so difficult for us to even pass through that dirt, then how could those cleaners stand there, go inside the muddy pit and clean everything without any instrument or gloves?? Couldn’t they smell?? Were their smell senses disabled?? Didn’t they have a fear of any infection or an insect bite?? Didn’t dirt bother them?? Couldn’t they have proper tools, machines and covers so that they could protect themselves prior to doing such an ‘essential’ job. They were humans and, that too, vital part of the system…!! Weren’t they?? Could we survive without Cleaners and Rag-Pickers?? Were their lives so worthless that could be put into so much of dirt and risk??”

There is a ‘grandma’s belief’ and a phrase that if you find a situation difficult, and you don’t get a solution, write it on a paper. It works as a silent prayer to God. He listens and does answer. The origin of my story on Scavengers’ Plight: Does Manual Scavenging still exist…? was actually a silent prayer to God to help those in despair. I was sure He will answer my prayers, and, to my pleasant surprise, the day the story got published, I received this following message, making my happiness know no bounds. The message read that,

“In a PIL of “Muhim vs. State of U.P.& others” on a tragic death of 2 sewage workers in a manhole in front of Circuit House Allahabad, by a division bench of Justice V.K. Shukla & M.C. Tripathi, following order has been passed:
1 Jal Nigam conducted inquiry & found the Respondent Company not complying with the Act, has been blacklisted for 5 years.
2. Compensation of 10 lakhs each has been granted to both the victims’ families.
3) A Safai Karamchari, named Lalli, who was 33 years old, had 5 kids, of whom 2 were studying. Their elementary education from class 1 to 5 has been granted free of cost.
4) And if, any incident like this happens and if a PIL is submitted for that, local authorities will have to take immediate action.
3. Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act, should be implemented, and if any accident or loop hole found, then same will be prosecuted under section 6,7,8, & 9 of the Act”

On the above PIL, the final judgement following all the proceedings was announced on 6 July 2016.

Somewhere in my heart, I was sure that God had started answering. But, at the same time, I knew that things couldn’t change overnight, so I turned to one of my friends who is a lawyer and is associated with such cases only. The details my friend provided, was related to a Delhi case:

“Delhi Jal Board Vs National campaign for Dignity and Rights of sewerage and allied workers and others”. This case was heard in Supreme Court. The case was argued by Senior advocate of Supreme Court, Colin Gonsalves. He is also the founder and director of Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). HRLN filed the PIL for this case This was the first case under which the order was issued that manual scavenging should be totally prohibited. Initially, manually scavenging term was used for those who used to clean the excreta. The first Act which came into existence, had directed its recommendations for the prohibition of only this type of work. But when the new Act ‘Prohibition of Employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation Act2013’ came into existence, it not only included those manual scavengers who clean excreta, but also included those who clean septic tanks and sewers and all the works related to cleaning of the garbage. The Act came into force in September 2013. It was consisted of some major decisions as follows:
1) There will be a committee in both district level and state level which will act upon the recommendations.
2) Contractors will provide an affidavit in which they will mention that they will provide all the safety measures to the cleaners of septic tanks and sewers
3) There will be a provision of health cards, pension for the scavengers.

But, what my friend further told me, is actually an alarm for the authorities. I was told that The Act itself is very good, and if implemented properly with full force, can definitely improve the condition of scavengers. But, in actual, contractors don’t provide any safety measures to the cleaners. They bring local labours from the outskirts and hire them under meagre wages. They Make them drink local liquor so that they (workers) are unable to sense any smell, and make them take off their shirts and trousers and enter into septic tanks and sewers in their undergarments only. There are number of poisonous gases present inside the tanks, so to measure the safety, the contractor is supposed to light a matchstick to know if there is oxygen present or not, and then accordingly has to send the worker inside it with proper safety gear. But all these safety measures are ignored due to which (inhaling of poisonous gases) sewage workers die.

According to the statistics, around 22,526 sewage workers die per year and their maximum age is 45-50. Because they go inside the sewer, they catch number of infections, tuberculosis and so many deadly diseases for which they are unable to get the treatment because of poverty and zero medical aid. They remain unaware of their medical conditions, so they die. These are the realities. The committees which are formed for the welfare of scavengers, and to watch if the Act is being implemented properly or not, are actually not functioning properly.

While, I was driving back, numerous queries surrounded me once again… “Were their smell senses disabled?? Didn’t they have a fear of any infection or an insect bite?? Didn’t dirt bother them?? Couldn’t they have proper tools, machines and covers so that they could protect themselves prior to doing such an ‘essential’ job.”

As I parked the car, my nephew, who was searching for me everywhere at home, came running, and, before I could speak anything, asked, if I got the answers to all his queries…

“The key to the new law will be effective accountability and enforcement. It is also crucial that adequate resources are provided to enable the comprehensive rehabilitation of liberated manual scavengers. This is the only way these grossly exploited people will be able to successfully reintegrate into a healthier and much more dignified work environment, and finally have a real opportunity to improve the quality of their own lives and those of their children and subsequent generations.” – Navi Pillay (Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)

And, the reverberation continues….

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