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The vast majority of India’s population suffers from various kinds of disabilities on account of birth. In extreme cases, disabilities take the form of condemnation to eke out a measly living doing the dirtiest of jobs.
The Constitution that India adopted on emerging as a free nation proclaimed that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability, restriction or condition with regard to access to basic amenities and other facilities on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It also empowered the state to make special provisions considered necessary to enable the disadvantaged sections to overcome their disabilities and become full and equal citizens.
Accordingly, the Centre and the states have enacted a plethora of laws. However, justice eludes hapless citizens as the authorities are often lax in implementing them.
In 1993, in the fifth decade of Independence, the Centre passed a law prohibiting construction of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. It prescribed a year’s imprisonment or a fine of Rs 2,000 or both for breach of its provisions. But no one was convicted under this law in any state.
The Comptroller and Auditor-General in a report in 2003 said Rs6 billion had been spent on the scheme for rehabilitation of scavengers under the law but it had failed to achieve its objectives. Later in the year Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation of the community, moved the Supreme Court for a declaration that continuance of manual scavenging was a violation of constitutional rights and a directive to the Central and state governments to implement the law.
While the matter was before the court, the Centre superseded the 2003 law with another one which spelt out measures for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The Supreme Court closed the case after issuing certain directives to the Centre and the states in the light of the new law.
On October 2, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched with fanfare an ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with the objective of making India clean in five years as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary. It envisages large-scale construction of community toilets, grant of financial aid to build household toilets and making towns and villages free of open defaecation.
Successful completion of the mission would eliminate manual scavenging. The Urban Development Ministry, which recently undertook a sample survey in three selected districts each in the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, found that all three had failed miserably in achieving the targets for building household latrines in the first two years.
Karnataka had achieved a paltry 2.1 per cent, UP four per cent and Maharashtra 14.4 per cent. In many instances the state governments had not even transferred the funds allotted by the Centre to the urban local bodies. The Ministry concluded that the mission was unlikely to achieve the goal of Clean India by 2019.
The SBM websites claim that more than 38 million household toilets have been built in the villages and more than 3 million in urban areas. The Urban Development Ministry’s survey yielded information that casts doubts on these claims.
For instance, it pointed out that at Akola town in Maharashtra only 85 households sought assistance to build toilets but the website displayed photographs of 2,978 completed units. It also put up photographs of more than 600 toilets said to have been constructed at Bhadohi, Jahanabad and Mathura in UP although not even one application from these towns was verified and approved.
The Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in 2015 put the number of families engaged in manual scavenging at 180,657. The Centre is supposed to provide funds to the states for their rehabilitation. In the 2015-16 budget it made an allocation of Rs 4.7 billion for the purpose but not a rupee was spent.
One reason for the failure of the rehabilitation scheme is the systematic falsification of data by the states. Most of them deliberately fudge the number of manual scavengers to convey the false impression that they had complied with the legal ban. Sometimes this is done in a very crude manner. For instance, the government of Telangana state, which had more than 150,000 dry latrines at the end of 2015/ claimed there were no manual scavengers in the state.
The Central and state governments owe it to themselves and to the people to address the problem of manual scavenging boldly and honestly and put an end to the misery of those who have been waiting endlessly for justice.
The author is a political analyst of reckoning