Amritsar: Valmiki Chowk in Amritsar’s Gual Mandi is about seven kilometres from the holy town’s holiest address – the Golden Temple. It is near this chowk that most of the town’s Dalits live, away from the centre of all action.
On the afternoon of March 18, a gathering of people from the colony waited eagerly near a concrete bust of Valmiki for the arrival of a bus at the chowk. The bus arrived soon – having made its way from Jammu – and its 35-odd passengers were welcomed with marigold garlands. The banner on the bus and the headbands worn by those who got off it had “Bhim Yatra” written all over.
Ushered into the colony’s Valmiki mandir, the new arrivals soon joined the residents in cutting a cake to celebrate the completion of 100 days of their journey. Members of the ‘welcome committee’ took to the mic with much vigour. “We have been facing injustice for centuries. People have been regularly dying in sewer lines and manholes. Nobody cares! What is the use of a law if we die like this? We will not keep quiet anymore. Stop killing us!” Kamal Nahar, a worker in the local municipality, shouted into the loud speaker followed by chants of “Jai Bhim,” with fists raised in the air.
A local resident, Shashi Gill added, “Even though the law says compensation should be given to the families of those who die clearing manholes, many families have been denied it…our money is eaten up…we demand the government to act, we demand an apology for the injustices meted out to us, our fathers and brothers who had to die in manholes, in sewer lines…this has to stop!”
“Jai Bhim, Jai Bhim” slogans were again in the air followed by more speeches and slogans.
Seeking an end to manual scavenging
The Bhim Yatra may be away from the glare of the mainstream media but what it entails is a centuries old story, rooted deep in the rigid caste system, shades of which could be traced in those speeches made at the Valmiki Colony of Amrtisar. The objective behind the yatra is to highlight the life of manual scavengers, long subjugated, and still struggling to lead a life of dignity, even though there is a law in place since 1993 that says they should have a life of dignity. It also underlines an ugly reality that the government is indirectly pushing a section of poor people to clean others’ toilets and sewer lines simply because it has not been able to mechanise the system even if the law says it must.
Bhim Yatra took off in that bus from Dibrugarh in Assam on December 10, 2015 on International Human Rights Day carrying a group of safai karamcharis engaged as manual scavengers in different parts of the country along with some family members. On April 12, when it reaches New Delhi, it would have travelled more than 35,000 kms through 500 districts across India.
The prime objective of the yatra, mobilised by the New Delhi-headquartered Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) is largely what Nahar, Gill, and others touched upon in their speeches in that meeting in Valmiki Chowk – proper implementation of The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
Bezwada Wilson, the National Convener of SKA, says, “The Yatra has been organised to highlight the pain and anguish of manual scavengers and their families from across the country because of the poor implementation of the Act. On one hand, the government is celebrating 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar and on the other, it is allowing so many people to die in the sewer holes. Sadly, this is happening even after the highest court of the country had directed all the states over two years ago to step up measures to stop such deaths and punish the offenders.”
Since 1982, SKA has been spearheading a movement against the caste-based practise of manual scavenging by holding street protests and meetings across the country. The parliament passed The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, and set imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of 2000 rupees for pushing a person to manual scavenging. Unfortunately, no conviction has been reported so far.
In 2000, the government identified 6,79,000 manual scavengers from across the country which the SKA termed as incorrect, saying the figure is 1.3 million even by a rough estimate. After two years of waiting for the Act to be implemented since that identification drive, SKA filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking a directive to end the deaths caused in sewer lines, septic tanks and manholes. Meanwhile, the law was reenacted as The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act in 2013.
Compensation, rehabilitation and alternative means of livelihoods
On March 24, 2014, the Supreme Court gave specific directions to prevent and control the practice termed illegal under the Act and also to prosecute the offenders. It also directed the government to pay a compensation of 10 lakh rupees to the family members of those killed in acts of manual scavenging since 1993.
Wilson added, “Even after the SC directive, deaths in sewer holes and septic tanks are being regularly reported. SKA has been collecting data of such deaths. From March 2014 to March 2016, 1268 deaths have been reported from various states of India.”
“Even though some states deny having manual scavengers, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis itself admits to a number of deaths in such states,” he underlines.
Subhash Desawar, convener of the Punjab wing of SKA who is part of the yatra through the state, pointed out, “This number includes only reported deaths. Many deaths go unreported usually because the private firms which often have the contracts to clear the sewers do not report them to the police as it is an illegal act. There are also cases where the authorities ask the family members of the dead are questioned about being involved in illegal acts like manual scavenging. They are poor people. Such attitude intimidates them. They fear that they will be jailed. So they prefer not reporting a death.” He said, “In many cases, the FIRS (First Information Report) are filed after a lot of protests and pressure on police. Yet, the FIRs mention the cause of death as due to negligence or by accident under Section 304A of IPC and never under the stricter anti-manual scavenging law or even under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Act.”
Desawar also pointed out facts that came out in a meeting on March 19 held in Tanda, 32 kms from Amritsar town. Tanda falls in Hoshiarpur parliamentary constituency represented by the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Vijay Sampla. Family members of as many as 10 people killed in sewer holes in Tanda itself gathered there to talk about the refusal of the police to file FIRs under the Act. There were also complainants like Joginder Pal who said, “Even though my father’s death was registered under the Act, we are yet to receive any compensation.”
Loopholes in rehabilitation of former manual scavengers and the difficulty they face in finding an alternate means of livelihood also came to the fore during the meeting. Speakers like Raj Kumar and Surinder Pal related to others people in that meeting, “We left manual scavenging some years ago but have not been able to get any other job so far. We went to a bank to seek a loan to start a shop but it asked us to furnish guarantee. We are poor people. From where will we get bank guarantee? We have been working as daily wage earners all our lives.”
On March 18, the day Bhim Yatra completed hundred days in Amritsar, SKA was joined by a cross section of prominent people to address the media in New Delhi to highlight the failure of the government to implement the Act. Later, a delegation also met President Pranab Mukherjee to apprise him of the prevailing realities on the ground despite the law, and about the objectives of Bhim Yatra.
Wilson said, “It is not for the first time that SKA had to take out a yatra to highlight the need to safeguard the fundamental rights of safai karamcharis. In 2007, with the solidarity and support of many citizens groups, we launched a similar bus yatra to end manual scavenging. Still, the negligence of the government and law enforcing agencies continues.”
After traversing through many districts of Punjab, the yatra entered Haryana on March 24. Wilson informed, “On April 13, after the Yatra rounds up its journey in New Delhi, there will be a public meeting at Jantar Mantar where those who travelled in that bus from Dibrugarh to Delhi will relate the pathetic condition of manual scavengers and their families in various parts of the country due to non-implementation of the Act.”
Keeping Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary in mind, they will be joined by 125 families who have lost a member to manual scavenging and are yet to receive compensation.