Sunday, November 18, 2007

MP Ki Safai Dekho

Madhya Pradesh’s manual scavengers who want to quit their inhuman trade are forced back under pressure from State and society.


Rekha Bai used to carry nightsoil in Tonkakala village of Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh. She had inherited this illegal trade from her mother-in-law, and unwillingly continued it for 15 long years. Finding it detestable, she finally decided to give it up, and stayed away from this work for sometime. To her horror, she quickly discovered that no other means of livelihood was available to people like her, and had no choice but to resume the work due to society's pressure.

The inhuman practice of the cleaning dry latrines and transporting of human excreta manually has been around for ages, but it has been officially banned since 1993. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, makes the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines that are not connected to a drainage system a punishable offence, that can result in imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000.

Those found guilty of the offence are also liable to prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Yet, in several villages of interior Madhya Pradesh, as in several other remote parts of the country, the practice continues to this day. It is noteworthy that 98 percent women and only two percent man are in this line of work. But the government assistance for those leaving the trade is provided mostly for jobs meant for men.

"I did not like this work. But I was forced to do this to make both ends meet. There was no alternative," says Rekha Bai, who has now once and for all given up the trade after being persuaded by social activists. Her case is not very different from that of hundreds of others, mostly women, who find themselves forced to do this work in the absence of other means of livelihood. Like Rekha Bai, Laxmi Bai of Devgarh village also had earlier quit the trade, but had to resume work after staying away for two months. Vimla Bai and Dhanna Lal of the same village too faced a similar dilemma.

But today all of them have given up this work thanks largely to the efforts of activists and social organisations. While the practice has almost completely stopped in MP’s Dewas district, but it continues unchecked in several other districts of the state. But quitting the trade is the easier part; most of them still face the almost insurmountable problem of finding alternative means of livelihood. Many have tried to get work as farm labourers to sustain themselves, but most find themselves in the position of Vimla Bai, who says, "It is not easy to get any other job after giving up this work. People do not want to employ us due to untouchability."

In Ujjain district, the carrying of nightsoil is done by members of the Hindu Valmiki community or the Muslim Haila community. Many also do several other tasks for their employers, for which they do not get any payment. Most of them get Rs 20 to 30 per month from each household they serve, besides some roti and old clothes on the occasion of festivals.

Officially at least, Islam has no place for untouchability, but in reality, most Hailas face severe social discrimination. But things are changing here too. Says Taslim of Kayatha, "I did not like carrying night-soil. But there was so much pressure of the family and the society that I had no other option. However I decided to give up this work after the social workers persuaded me. It is my endeavour that no other woman of the area may have to do this work."

According to Asif, who heads Jan Sahas, an organisation working to help the manual scavengers, especially women find alternative employment, says that their social rehabilitation is a big problem. "This is the reason that many women have returned to this work after quitting it once," he says. The other major problem is of the education of their children. Rules specified by the government, which does not officially recognise that they carry nightsoil, and classify them as ‘sanitation workers’, are such that their children get scholarships for education only as long as their families continue this work.

Government officials say that the scholarship is meant for children of people engaged in insanitary occupations, and once they quit this work there is no question of their children receiving scholarship. For the nightsoil-carriers of the region, it’s a situation of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. Says 54-year-old Mannu Bai of Sia village, who quit this work, "My grandsons and granddaughters were discriminated in the school when we used to work. Now that we have quit this work, we are no longer in a position to send them to school."

Five years have passed since Kiran, Shobha, Santosh Bharosa and most other women of Sia’s Valmiki basti quit their jobs. But even today, the only work they get is on the fields, when there’s ripening or harvesting of crop. Sometimes they wait to get permission from the nagar panchayat in order to cleaning the drains and gutters, which is given for 15 days to each family by turn.

One survey revealed that 52 persons in Hoshangabad who had left this work were forced to resume it in the absence of proper rehabilitation. Even those who have left the trade haven’t seen much change in their lives, and still find themselves forced to do their community’s dirty work. Many are given tasks similar to their former trade, such as disposing of dead animals in the village, bringing back dead person's clothes from the cemetery, performing last rites of the unclaimed bodies and so on.

The government has no solid policy that can put an end to such occupations, which are restricted to particular castes by an age-old social system. Local authorities have claimed that they aim to end such practices by December 2008, the latest date that has been set on the task since 1993. It remains to be seen whether those who have given up this work will be suitably rehabilitated, instead of continuing to be forced back into their accursed trade. It's a crying shame that even after 60 years of independence, this inhuman practice continues unabated in ‘Shining India’.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 45, Dated Nov 24, 2007

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