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Victory for Tamil Nadu's manual scavengers

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Acting on a PIL by a public-spirited citizen, the Tamil Nadu Hight Court has censured the state government for violation of the Eradication of Manual Scavenging & Dry Latrine (Abolition) Act 1993, and for contravening the law by employing manual scavengers in its own civic bodies

Sewerage  workers  have  something  to  cheer  about  in  Tamil  Nadu. A David versus Goliath battle has been going on in Chennai, launched by one public-spirited individual fighting for Tamil Nadu sewerage workers. 

Ananth Narayanan of Chennai, shocked by the repeated reports of manual scavengers dying when they enter blocked sewage drains and septic tanks, decided enough was enough.  He filed his first public interest litigation against the state government in the Chennai High Court last year, seeking 'the issuance of a writ of mandamus directing the respondents to discontinue the employment of human beings in cleaning manholes and sewerage lines and septic tanks in the state of Tamil Nadu and further direct the respondents to adequately rehabilitate those who are currently employed in cleaning manholes and sewerage lines and pass such further or other orders'.  

Narayanan has been waging a battle to ensure that the Tamil Nadu government, which likes to brand itself as a high-tech destination for foreign investment, does what the law requires it to – abolish this inhuman and medieval practice of manual scavenging. In spite of the 1993 Act, even a progressive state like Tamil Nadu through its various civic bodies continues to illegally employ people as ‘manual scavengers’. What makes this stink even more, is that these people are all from the balmiki community. This makes the state government culpable, a party to the continuance of the caste system. Worse still, by the government's own admission, through papers filed in this case before the High Court by  Sunil Paliwal, Managing Director of the  Chennai Metrowater Supply and Sewerage Board, 17 people died between 2003 and 2008 when “they went inside the drains to clear blocks”.  

Ananth  Narayanan’s  case was  so  clearly  stated,  it  moved  the court  to  action.

In passing orders on this writ petition, the High Court was unambiguous in its directive to the state government to “ensure that manual scavenging is totally prohibited in the state and that no case of such unwarranted deaths takes place by permitting the gullible employees to enter the drainage system in the metropolitan cities and cleaning of septic tank in other places.” 

Narayanan was elated by the victory. I interviewed him on the telephone, in his Chennai home. “Based on my first PIL, we managed to get a favourable verdict of a complete ban on entry of workers into septic tanks and sewer lines for cleaning purposes throughout Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, in the current budget, the state government also sanctioned Rs 6.3 crore for mechanisation and another 22 crore for rehabilitation purposes. In that sense a beginning has been made. But in spite of this clear-cut court order, on the evening of January 6, three workers were ordered to clean a sewer manhole in North Chennai.  Ettiappan, a sanitation  worker aged 50, died inside the sewer. He drowned  in  liquid faeces.  A   fate worse than that of a stray dog.   We find that nothing has really changed. No difference for the sanitary workers. This is why I filed a contempt of court petition on January 29, 2009.”  

Narayanan suggested to the court that two committees be set up to develop measures to ensure the implementation of the High Court order in letter and spirit. The first, to create awareness, and the second, a technical committee with experts. 

In its orders related to the contempt of court petition, the court has directed the government to set up these committees and to nominate members from Metrowater, Chennai Corporation and also MAWS department to the committee. 

The court has also asked the government to send copies of this order to other voluntary and technical organisations to get their consent to be part of the committee and report back on July 7, 2009. 

Ananth Narayanan went on to point out that “the court in their earlier June 16 order, directed the special government pleader to report back on what measures the government has taken to implement the Eradication of Manual Scavenging & Dry Latrine (Abolition) Act 1993, like appointing investigating and prosecuting authorities under the Act.”  

But the special government pleader was forced to admit orally in court that “though the government of Tamil Nadu has notified the Act it has not appointed the necessary authorities to investigate and prosecute violations.”

The state government under this Act is required to appoint a district magistrate to act as an executive authority to ensure that the provisions of the Act are carried out. The Act also provides for imprisonment up to one year for violations of the law. 

Ananth Narayanan explained the stumbling block in procedure, “It is pertinent to note that not even one prosecution, leave alone conviction, has happened anywhere in India since the above Act was enacted and no state government has appointed such authorities to monitor violations and file cases in the court. Hence this Act remains, since its  inception 16  years  ago, a snake without fangs.”  

No wonder then that perpetrators of different forms of manual scavenging continue to carry on with impunity. The system is full of contradictions and flaws, as Narayanan is quick to point out. “It is the state machinery such as corporations and municipalities which are the largest violators. How will they take action against themselves? Now that the Madras High Court has asked the government some difficult questions, we hope progress can be made elsewhere in other states too.” 

The 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers & Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act is very stringent. Narasimha Rao, when he was prime minister, vowed to eradicate manual scavenging. It was his pet project. Apart from ensuring the passing of this Act, he set up the Commission for Safai Karmacharis with the prime minister as chair, attended countless  meetings himself and sanctioned crores for the rehabilitation of  sanitation workers. In spite of all this, very little has changed. 

In the last 10 years, a number of NGOs, mainly dalit organisations like the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Navsarjan Trust, Jan Sahas and several others, have worked hard to bring this issue to the attention of the courts. In 2003, they succeeded in filing a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court which focused national interest on the issue. It was a historic victory, that senior secretaries of eight states were summoned to the SC, and forced to admit that their governments had lied to the SC in stating that manual scavenging did not exist in their states. 

But in spite of all this pressure, state governments are doing little or nothing to ensure that the Act is implemented.  

Last year,  I  documented  the progress of  the  Safai  Karmachari  Andolan (SKA),  a movement  for  the  eradication  of  manual  scavenging and  restoring dignity  to  the  community in  Punjab  and  Haryana. They  had  managed  by  their  meticulous  documentation  to  prove  in  the  Supreme  Court  that the  senior  secretaries  of  eight  states  had  lied  to  the  SC on  the  existence  of  manual  scavenging  in  their  states. The  SKA activists  and  volunteers  had  gone  door  to  door armed with lists of illegal (since 1993) dry  latrine owners and  of the  women who  cleaned  those  toilets. They  took video and  still  cameras and  captured  evidential footage  of  the cleaning women  coming out  of  the  latrines with  brooms,  buckets  and  containers  of  faecal  matter. Simultaneously,  they got TV  channels  to  send  their  reporters and  carried  footage  of  their findings. 

We  discovered  that  neither  the  law,  nor  the  courts, nor  public  civic  education made  the  slightest  impact on  the semi-educated,  semi-rural,  lower  middle class users  and  owners  of  dry  latrines. They  were  indifferent  and  hostile  to  talk  of “practicing  untouchability” or  the  plight  of  the  women cleaning  their shit. What  made  a  huge  impact  and  had  them  scrambling  to  install  flush  toilets  was  the  shame  of  appearing  on  television  channels  as feudal, disgusting  people  whom  the  neighbours  would  laugh  at. The name and shame and televise policy worked. No one  wanted to  be  caught  with  their pants  down! It  was  one  of  the  rare  times  when  people didn’t  want  to  be  on  TV! 

We  therefore  need  a  two-pronged attack in  this  battle  for  dignity. One, against the owners and users of dry latrines.  And  two,  against  the  officials whose  callousness  and  indifferent  neglect  allow  those illegal  latrines  to  be  still  in  existence. Our laws will continue to be ignored and circumvented unless stringent action is taken against the officials who fail to do their duty.  We  need  to  get  the media  to  go  after  the  perpetrators  and film  them  and  shame  them  on  television as was  done in  Punjab,  Haryana  and  other  states.  We  need  to  show our  public  the  face of  the corpse  pulled  out  from  the  sewer,  blackened and  swollen,  and  explain  that  this  is  what  happens  to  someone  who  drowns  in  a  sewer, asphyxiated  by  toxic  gases. Juxtapose  that  with  the  picture  of  the  man --  alive,  well  and  smiling,  and  his  family.  And then  interview  the officials  responsible  for  his  death and  indict  that  official  for  his\her  role in  the  murder  of a  sanitation  worker. 

In order for this to happen, more activists, NGOs and  public-spirited  citizens must get involved in filing PILs and conducting a name and shame campaign against the errant officials.   

Infochange News & Features, July 2009