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Fri24Oct2014

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A death foretold

The tale of the progressive undermining of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis is a tale of intentional decay, writes Agrima Bhasin

Caste discrimination

“Why is it that the Commission for Safai Karamcharis is being subjected to the same discrimination as the safai karamcharis themselves? This is not something to be proud of.” Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao minced no words at the Conference of Welfare Ministers of States in 1996, to guilt the august gathering into recognising their culpability in the deliberate weakening of a competent commission. Seventeen years later, Narasimha Rao’s thoughts are remembered and echoed by staff and administrative members of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, housed in B Wing, 4th Floor, Lok Nayak Bhawan, Khan Market, Delhi.

In the power hierarchy of commissions, the Election Commission reigns supreme, with the political elite of the country at its core. Next is the Finance Commission, poised to decide the financial depth of the pockets of Centre and state governments. The National Human Rights Commission follows as a statutory commission with significant leverage. With the welfare of ‘deprived classes’ at its heart, the national commissions, respectively for women, minorities and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes enjoy less clout in this hierarchy. And at the bottom of the power hierarchy rests the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). It was constituted in 1994 as an advisory body under the aegis of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to supervise and evaluate implementation of rehabilitation schemes for ‘manual scavengers’.

Today, like Humpty Dumpty, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis is on the verge of a great fall. It is a temporary body, which, over the last decade, has been stripped of its statutory powers, thrives on opaque appointment criteria, and has been made toothless.

The wings of the National Commission for Safai Karamchariswere clipped before it even took flight. “They decided to send the commission to the gallows before it was born. Which other country would do that?” exclaimed Girender Nath, private secretary to a member of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, breaking into an ironic laugh. Established under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) Act, 1993, it was prematurely decided that the commission would cease to exist on March 31, 1997. Regrettably, this preceded any purposeful planning on 1) time-bound demolition of dry toilets, 2) identification and rehabilitation of safai karamcharis, and 3) support for their children. Nath and his colleagues from the All-India Safai Mazdoor Congress Trade Union played a crucial role at a month-long dharna organised at the Boat Club to demand a commission in 1989. In 1992, then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao himself addressed a huge rally of workers to declare his government’s intention of forming a commission for safai karamcharis.

 After official promulgation of the Act in 1993, there was a year-and-a-half delay in the appointment of its chairholders (hereafter, members). “We had decided to celebrate August 15, 1994, as Kala Divas(Black Day) since the commission was not set up even a year after the NCSK Act was passed,” stated Nath, re-living the frustration of the infant years of the commission when they worked out of a one-room office in R K Puram, New Delhi. He continued: “Even after it was set up, it took us at least the first year (mid-1994 onwards) to piece together the basic infrastructure.” Disappointingly, the first batch of members faced a truncated term of barely two years since the commission’s impending demise in 1997 loomed large. Thereafter, the Act has been amended from time to time to grant an extended life of three years to the commission.

In 2000, the then minister of welfare recommended the commission’s abolition. It is understood that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee overruled this recommendation and the commission was granted an extension on the advice of Bhartiya Janata Party’s Bangaru Laxman (then minister of state for railways and born into a Madiga dalit family in Andhra Pradesh). However, the NCSK Act, 1993 that established the commission was not renewed after 2004 and hence dissolved. “When its previous extension of tenure came to an end in 2004, this commission was weakened and its statutory base collapsed even as a constitutional or statutory status was being considered for other commissions, including new commissions, around the same time,” said P S Krishnan, retired IAS, former secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, who drafted the NCSK bill in the early-1990s at the request of representatives of safai karamcharis, and whose draft bill was heavily diluted into the final NCSK Act, 1993.

The commission, thereafter, was extended until 2007 (and later 2010) under a government notification (after invalidation of the NCSK Act). Its current tenure is due to end in March 2013.

“As an ‘advisory’ body, we have no decision-making powers. How do they expect us to function? It’s easy for them to judge from outside,” Nath responded, to counter the dominant perception of the commission as comatose. The NCSK Act bound the commission to present and debate its annual report in Parliament. The commission’s annual report for 2000 tellingly brought to light the practice of manual scavenging being resorted to in defence, railways and public sector undertakings. However, with the annulment of the Act, the requirement to submit reports to Parliament met an ambiguous fate, since the status of successive reports is a mystery. The research and development unit of the commission confirmed submitting all annual reports till 2012 to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. It is the ministry, they assert, that is answerable for whether or not the reports were submitted to the Lok Sabha secretariat for discussion in Parliament.

A veiled affair

Appointments of chairholders to most commissions in India are an opaque and veiled affair. Who appoints who, on whose request, makes for a riveting and enduring game of guesswork. The criteria for appointment of members (chairperson, vice-chairperson and five members), according to the NCSK Act, 1993, was that at least one member shall be a woman and that all nominated members are ‘persons of eminence connected with socio-economic development and welfare of safai karamcharis’. “In 1992, we demanded that the chairperson be accorded the status of a cabinet minister, but what did they do?” Nath asked. He answered: “They gave the chairperson the status of ‘deputy minister’ and the vice-chairperson and members the status of ‘secretary, Government of India’,” suggesting that the trade union’s demand for cabinet status was struck down due to internal politics.

“The very first chairperson was a true leader since he was involved in establishing the commission. He always thought about the commission, its staff and the safai karamcharis,” said an administrative staff member nostalgically. He added: “That chairperson could really pressurise the government to act. After him, members have come and gone; yeh dheela padh gaya hai (the commission has become weak).” The distress in his voice was pronounced.

While it is noteworthy that the four incumbent members hail from scheduled caste (SC) backgrounds, their portfolio with the commission is only one among the many portfolios and interests they pursue. The commission, despairingly, is not the sole beneficiary of their attention. Nevertheless, the present members know their work impressively well. They can talk extempore on the evils and exploitative nature of contract labour, the multitude of grievances that they attend to, the kind of measures required for meaningful rehabilitation, and the deep-seated discrimination safai karamcharis face. Lamentably, by the time each successive batch of members develops a thorough understanding of the functioning of the commission, their three-year term comes to a close.

“Those who appoint the members should spare a thought for the fate of the commission,” a staff worker suggested. His underlying concern was that an opaque appointment procedure brushes aside invisible crusaders who have devoted their lives to eradicating manual scavenging and whose ‘eminence’ resonates in the hearts of the safai karamcharis they have touched in their lifetime.

Cast(e) aside

“My grandparents were safai karamcharis but my father broke free,” Nath continued, quietly but proudly, recalling his father’s struggle to eke out a living in urban Delhi and afford his children a good education. Quiet acknowledgement of the hardships faced by his parents motivated Nath to strive for more, after college. Aged 45, he is as old as the commission itself. A thesis short of possessing his LLM degree, he is in fact overqualified for his position (private secretary to a member). As the oldest employee, Nath grieves the gradual decline of the commission and says an individual’s experience of working with safai karamcharis, not eminence, is a worthy yardstick for appointments.

Nath played an instrumental role in negotiating temporary job status for administrative staff workers who started out as daily wage peons. “It is because of him that we are still here,” said a staff worker expressing his gratitude. “We want to contribute in many other ways. There’s more to life (Hum bhi kuchh karna chahte hain).” Staff members, including Nath, look forward to the day the commission is reformed and they are given work commensurate with their qualifications and potential.

“Those in power, responsible for appointments, are non-dalits. And the admin staff and I, we come from low-caste, dalit families. Woh humara bhala kyun chahenge? (Why would they want us to rise?),” Nath said matter-of-factly, the hurt of discrimination concealed in his tone but evident in his eyes. “How many dalit IAS officers are there? Has a dalit ever occupied the post of secretary, Government of India?” he continued, not expecting an answer. His pensive colleagues nodded in agreement.

Caste bias and discrimination in the commission and in the Indian bureaucracy “is rampant though not explicit,” Nath believes. Subtle discrimination, however, has given way to undisguised discrimination on several occasions. In 2007, the Uttar Pradesh government stopped extending the due courtesies to members of the commission on official tours. Such an attitude is very “discouraging and humiliating,” said Hari Ram Sood, one of the commission’s present members.

Restoring power to the commission

From inside their rectangular cubicle in Lok Nayak Bhawan, Nath and his immediate colleagues exercise incredible discretion and redefine their slim portfolios every day. Grievance letters that reach the commission are read and forwarded, in the chain hierarchy, to members higher up. “We pass on these letters everyday so that at least some action is taken,” said Nath, whose experience compels him to correct, inform and even disagree with members or their personal staff. But beyond such discretion, his hands are tied.

“Be it cases of dalit atrocities, land grabs, violence against women or cases of dry toilet owners, I make many calls to concerned police personnel across states and regions. But the commission does not have the power to summon the offenders,” explained Hari Ram Sood. He, and other members and staff like Nath all want the NCSK to be given powers akin to a civil court trying a suit. Like the commission for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. However, such powers will prove ineffectual if granting charity extensions to the commission under government notifications remains the norm. Making the commission a permanent body is the only way to cement its foundation.

“So long as the commission is temporary, our jobs too are insecure,” Nath said with a helpless shrug of his shoulders. The commission currently lacks the continuity that enables its members to discharge their duties responsibly and in a time-bound manner. Permanence would also mean job security for employees and administrative staff.

Staff members are motivated and would like their ideas and suggestions to be heard. A sharp analyst, Nath once educated a member on the difference between a proposed swarozgar, or self-employment loan, and a rehabilitation loan for manual scavengers. He argued that the two could not be equated and that a well-thought-out rehabilitation loan, inclusive of a self-employment grant, ought to be mooted for meaningful rehabilitation of safai karamcharis. In their opinion, an increase in the loan amount does not make for a better rehabilitation scheme. Further, manual scavengers willing to avail of this loan require the backing of a government guarantor. “Where are they going to get a government guarantor from?” asked Nath indignantly. Ideally, he wants the guarantor clause deleted. “How can we expect a manual scavenger to rehabilitate herself once and forever with Rs 20,000, even Rs 50,000?” 

Moreover, experiences of untouchability abound in the everyday lives of the safai karamcharis, many of whom, after availing of the loan, find it incredibly difficult to establish themselves as small kirana shopkeepers or vendors. “Nobody buys anything from them,” Nath declared. This is because the stigma of being born into a ‘scavenging’ caste follows them like a shadow. This makes many of them internalise caste oppression. “That’s why we need capacity-building programmes for these women. We need to motivate them a little,” urged a concerned colleague of Nath.

The employees strongly feel that the ambit of the commission’s responsibilities should be expanded beyond schemes and rehabilitation to encompass the overall welfare of manual scavengers, from the practice of untouchability to the harassment and atrocities they face. They believe there is little sense in reducing the number of members from seven to five, as, earlier, the seven members were able to better divide the responsibilities and tasks. Of the five members, one post, reserved for a woman member, remains vacant; no meaningful efforts have been made since 2010 to fill the position.

These commissions require the services of competent and informed men and women who are able to work proactively and produce results, and in whom the safai karamchari community has confidence. Retired IAS officer P S Krishnan recommended that “the selection of the chairholders be made transparent. Instead of just the prime minister and the concerned minister of social justice, the selection of chairperson and members should be made by a multi-member selection body comprising the prime minister, the concerned minister, leader of the opposition and eminent Supreme Court personnel who belong to the safai karamchari community and have worked sincerely for the welfare of the community.” A precedent in this regard, Krishnan said, is the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) whose members are selected by a multi-member body, including the leader of the opposition.

The tale of the progressive undermining of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis is a tale of intentional decay, but also one that presents the government with an opportunity to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall. It is a clarion call for the fortification of existing commissions. Establishing a new commission is often our immediate response to pressing concerns. This may be necessary in cases where none already exists. But where a commission does exist, constituting a new one is an unnecessary, time-wasting and bureaucratic exercise. It demonstrates a disturbing lack of will to restore credibility to existing institutions.

(Agrima Bhasin is a researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think-tank engaged in research and policy advocacy on issues of social and economic justice. This is the third in her series on safai karamcharis researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012)

Infochange News & Features, February 2013