Manual Scavenging: A Human Rights Violation against the Dalits

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Human Rights issues are a fairly dealt subject in the academia in today’s times, but often, we fail to ask ourselves the most basic and yet immensely important question: ‘Do people really care about Human Rights Violation in a country like India?’

On the brink of touching 68 years of independence, India, the world’s largest democracy, continues to be plagues by the caste based discrimination, one of the worst forms of human rights violations known to exist. This form of discrimination remains to be an evocative and soul-stirring experience for a large segment of the Indian Society, known as “Dalits” who are still being socially marginalized. The main problem lies in the mindset of the people of India which remains chained into the shackles of caste- based discrimination. Unfortunately, the discrimination is a social concept which has become embodied and ingrained in the customs of Indian society. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Independent India’s first Law Minister and the father of the Indian Constitution, had an opinion that the caste system was not imposed on the society by Brahmins, instead, it evolved because the Brahmins were imitated by other social groups. Even though India today is a free country, Indians are not yet free from this regressive mindset.

 An extreme human rights violation against the Dalits in all spheres of life, health, safety and education, is the dehumanizing practice of Manual Scavenging,  a matter of great humiliation. . This practice involves cleaning of the human excreta from dry and open drains manually, with the help of broom and tin plates, generally done by Dalits because of extreme poverty, illiteracy, lack of jobs, but most of all, because of the social marginalization they are continuously subjected to. This callous practice has been in existence since centuries and has been considered and termed as a hereditary occupation for Dalits. This is not a matter of choice for these people, rather, they enter this line of work based upon the stigma attached to being from a lower cast. In case these people refuse to do the work or attempt to raise their voices against it, serious repercussions follow, including threats of violence and expulsion from their villages and this often occurs with the complicity of the local government officials. The mentality of the Upper castes is driven by the belief that the Dalits are under a duty to perform such menial jobs under the divine law by virtue of their castes. They fear that in case these people become educated or they leave this job, then who will do these jobs for them, which are hitherto considered low and degrading in nature. Though the Indian Constitution bans the practice of untouchability and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging, yet these laws have been negated entirely since independence until today by the Upper caste Hindu society and the human rights of Dalits are being transgressed on a daily basis by the upper caste people.  As Dr. Ambedkar once said-“Rights are protected not by law but by moral and social conscience of the society”. Thus, even if the government continues making laws for eliminating this practice, it will not succeed until and unless the people who constitute the society are willing to stop this inhuman practice. The Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that the practice of manual scavenging violates norms of International Conventions such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1969.

Manual scavenging  is a blot on the face of the Indian Society and a hindrance in India’s development. It reinforces the social stigma surrounding untouchability and further perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion among communities.  Because of the State’s failure in protecting the human right of Dalits in India, there is a dire need to take the issue of manual scavenging at the international level. As estimated by the International Dalit Solidarity Network, around 1.3 million Dalits in India are manual scavengers, where most of them comprise of women. They make their living through scavenging and earn a meagre approximately Rs.30 a month usually. They are often given leftover foods, old clothes and access to land instead of wages. These scavengers hesitate to cook food and often don’t take their  meal due to recall of dirty work.

Though the Central Government has made several schemes for this purpose and some States have taken very strong steps to eradicate such practice, there are still reports of the continuance of the practice and the failure of the State Governments in keeping their commitments. A law banning manual scavenging was also passed in Parliament in 1993, but it did not ban dry toilets and had no employment aid for former workers. Hence,  it has gone largely unenforced.

This inhuman practice not only violates human rights but also results in ill health of scavengers because the repeated handling of human excrement without protection is a serious health hazard. According to the World Bank, one in every 10 deaths in India is due to poor sanitation, constituting a total of around 768,000 deaths in a year.

With the new government in regime, PM Narendra Modi has also talked about the modernisation of sanitation system which can be an important step in putting an end to manual cleaning of excrement to some extent. However, this alone will not eradicate the menace of manual scavenging from the society. To end manual scavenging practices, it is imperative that the Central as well as the State government take proactive measures to modernize sanitation and to ensure that people who leave this practice have prompt access to housing, employment and essential services. Strict penalties should be imposed on those who still encourage this one of the worst forms of jobs. To conclude, it may be stated that mere enactment of laws on this issue  cannot end the problem until and unless the mindset of the people also changes.

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