Dalits in India have for centuries been forced into working without proper tools or protective gear to clean dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks, a practice known as ‘manual scavenging’. This is not only demeaning but also extremely dangerous work and activists have been campaigning for many years for the proper implementation of laws banning the practice and rehabilitating those who have been engaged in it. This past month it has been uncovered that in the Delhi municipality alone, there has been an alarmingly high number of deaths of sanitation workers lowered into the city’s sewers with no equipment to protect them. Activists are sending the message that India must #stopkillingus and that the caste-based practice must end now.
The UN Expert on Water and Sanitation, Léo Heller, has stated that the failure to end the practice of manual scavenging in India coupled with the construction of more non-flush toilets, is contributing to an increase in the discriminatory practice of manual scavenging, where the lowest castes are made to undertake the duty of cleaning excrements from non-flush toilets by hand. The statement forms part of Mr. Heller’s official statement on his November 2017 mission in India.
Rights defenders in India are calling on the Indian Government to outline a concrete action plan within one month to end the dangerous and demeaning practice of manual scavenging. The call comes following the death of 27 manual scavengers in India within the span of one month, outlined in a press release by rights NGO Safai Karmchari Andolan (SKA).
For the past four months, activists have criss-crossed India to protest against manual scavenging. Their march – the Bhim Yatra – concludes in New Delhi tomorrow, on the eve of the 125th birthday of the great Dalit leader, Dr Ambedkar.
On the eve of today’s EU-India Summit, Human Rights Watch has written a letter to the EU addressing numerous key human rights issues. These include the failure of the Indian government to protect the country’s Dalit population.
There was a strong will from multiple stakeholders to help rehabilitate former manual scavengers at the ‘National Consultation on Rehabilitation of Manual Scavenger’s and Role of the Government, UN agencies, Public and Private Sector, CSR and Civil Societies’ consultation held in New Delhi.
Convened by the United Nations Development Programme, six UN agencies including IFAD, ILO, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women are working together to help accelerate inclusion of Dalit and Adivasi issues and access to rights in national and state policy and planning processes.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is asking the nation to rise above caste divides and telling every Indian to pick up a broom and sweep the streets. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will be true reform and political will to end caste discrimination, behind the hype.
In a written reply to the Indian House of Parliament (Lok Sabha), the Indian Social Justice and Empowerment Minister, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, said that the practice of manual scavenging still persists in various parts of the country. He added that because previous laws banning the practice had proved inadequate, parliament had enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the implementation of which is now be monitored.
The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the continuance of manual scavenging in the country is in blatant violation of Article 17 of the Constitution of India by which, “untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden”. The court was emphatic about the duty cast on all states and union territories “to fully implement the law and to take action against the violators”.
HRW Report: Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India