Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Grey Scale #3: Why manholes still have man in them?

When almost 99 per cent of people close their nose while crossing an open manhole or a dumpyard – even if it is for just a few seconds – there is still a section that steps into the same manhole or works in the dumpyard. India has come a long way in the 70 long years of Independence, but this section still remains in the 1940s, without witnessing any kind of development in terms of livelihood or technology in their profession.

In 2013, the Central government enacted ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act’.

This Act was implemented for the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families. With this Act, the Central government attempts at ‘dehumanising the practice of manual scavenging, arising from the continuing existence of insanitary latrines and a highly iniquitous caste system, still persists in various parts of the country’. The Act also had mentioned that ‘the existing laws have not proved adequate in eliminating the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging’.

However, it is still evident from the streets and dumpyards of the country that most conservancy workers are not equipped as mentioned in the Act.

Photo source: Internet
When I encountered a couple of conservancy workers, they initially feared to speak out about their struggles, but later agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.

“Our family has been doing this work for the past 300 years and we are still in it,” said a woman conservancy worker picking up garbage from the road and dumping it in the bin with her bare hands along Alandur Road in Guindy Industrial Estate.

Stating that she was from the Chakkiliyar community, she said, “It is not just the financial condition of the family but also the cruel caste system of this country that is the reason for us, being involved in this work over centuries.”

When asked whether is she not provided with any protective gear to clear the garbage, she said, “The only equipment they have given us is this broom. We bring small plates of iron or steel from our homes to pick poop from the streets. When we joined, they said gloves and masks will be provided. It is almost a year since I took up this job… We have got used to it.”

Not wishing to speak further, she pleaded not mention her name, saying, “I am a contract labourer and if you reveal my identity, it might affect my job and our family’s livelihood.”

As most of the city municipal corporations in the State, including Chennai, have privatised solid waste management, the conservancy workers from these cities are recruited on contract basis. There are a few recruited before privatisation, working as permanent staff.

One such conservancy worker from Saidapet elaborated on how the caste system is being adopted in recruitment even in government entities. “I came to work almost 25 years back and they took over 20 years to regularise my job: till then I was a temporary labourer. They (Corporation officials) have unofficially classified certain castes and communities for conservancy work alone. If any candidate from one of those communities applies for a job in the Corporation, the default question will be, ‘Are you ready to clean toilets and manholes?’ If we refuse to, then our applications will be rejected immediately,” he elaborated.

When asked why they do not send their children to school, he smiled and said, “That is where the conspiracy begins. Most of our children are not allowed to get past class 8 by some conditions like they are not fit to continue education. So, the only door open for them is conservancy work and this dirty tradition continues.”

He said not only in education, they encounter every form of social injustice. “Be it male chauvinism (90 per cent of conservancy workers are women), casteism, exploitation of our efforts and denying us decent pay – we suffer everything,” he added.

When I tried contacting officials from the Corporation’s health and solid waste management departments regarding this, the attempts went futile, while officials from the Adi Dravidar Welfare Department of Chennai district refused to comment.

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SOME DEFINITIONS AND TERMINOLOGIES IN THE ACT

Hazardous Cleaning:

According to the Act, hazardous cleaning means manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligations to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions.

Insanitary latrine:

It means a latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either in situ or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out, before the excreta fully decomposes. Provided that a water flush latrine in a railway passenger coach, when cleaned by an employee with the help of devices and using such protective gear, as the Central government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be an insanitary latrine.

Duties of the authorities:

The district magistrate and the authorities mentioned in section 18 of the Act should see to that, no person is engaged or employed as manual scavenger within their jurisdiction. They should also check that no one constructs, maintains, uses or makes available for use, an insanitary latrine. Manual scavengers identified under this Act should be rehabilitated. Similarly, persons contravening the provisions of the Act should be investigated and prosecuted.

Duties of the government:

It shall be the duty of the appropriate government to promote, through financial assistance, incentives and otherwise, the use of modern technology.

Duties of the judiciary:

No civil court shall have jurisdiction in respect of any matter to which any provision of the Act applies and no injunction shall be granted by any civil court in respect of anything which is done or intended to be done, by or under the Act.

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Chennai, July 12, 2017.

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