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.
In his statement, the UN Special Rapporteur explains that while he commends the vision of the Clean India Mission to end open defecation he has found that this mission is not being implemented through a human rights-based approach, which is having detrimental effects.
As an example, he states that that he has heard reports of the widespread persistence of the practice of manual scavenging, which is a violation of numerous rights as well as the dignity of those forced to do this ‘work’. The UN has on many occasions expressed grave concern for the persistence of the practice of manual scavenging in India, despite it being outlawed.
“Manual scavenging is not a career chosen voluntarily by workers, but is instead a deeply unhealthy, unsavoury and undignified job forced upon these people because of the stigma attached to their caste. The nature of the work itself then reinforces that stigma” stated the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, following a visit to India.
During his visit Mr. Heller took part in a community consultation in India organised by IDSN member Jan Sahas. At the consultation he heard cases of many ‘workers’ that had died while carrying out their ‘duties’ where no legal action had been taken and no relief or compensation had been made. He also heard that workers engaged in cleaning sewer lines, septic tanks, and manholes are not provided with safety gear at all despite the legal obligations and that sanitation workers are largely unprotected. Jan Sahas also informed the expert that not a single labour law is applicable and ensures their protection and basic social security.
The emphasis on building toilets should not “contribute to violating fundamental rights of others, such as those engaged in manual scavenging, or ethnic minorities and people living in remote rural areas,” Mr. Heller said in this statement.
According to Reuters the Indian Government is in denial of the fact that manual scavenging is still a widespread problem in India, that is not being curbed by the ‘Clean India Mission’, launched by the Government in 2014, but potentially exacerbated by it.
“This is not the first time the government has rejected statements made by UN experts on the need to address caste-based discrimination as a root cause of many human rights violations in the country, and it is very disappointing that the Government is choosing to dismiss the concern rather that tackling it head on,” said Meena Varma, Chair of the IDSN board.
The rapporteur will release a full report on his mission to India at the 39th session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2018.