NEW DELHI: Clean India "Swachh Bharat Mission" (SBM) is a national campaign by the Government of India, covering 4,041 statutory cities and towns, to clean the streets, roads and infrastructure of the country. The campaign was officially launched on October 2, 2014 at Rajghat, New Delhi, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself cleaned the road.

It is projected as India's biggest ever cleanliness drive and 3 million government employees including school and college students participated in this event.

It was performed in remembrance of Gandhi's words to ‘keep India clean’. Gandhi offered detailed comments in Navajivan dated 2-11-1919 on cleanliness and indicated its close relationship with good health: “No one should spit or clean his nose on the streets. In some cases the sputum is so harmful that the germs are carried from it and they infect others with tuberculosis. In some places spitting on the road is a criminal offence. Those who spit after chewing betel leaves and tobacco have no consideration for the feelings of others. Spittle, mucus from the nose, etc., should also be covered with earth”.

The programme plans to construct 12 crore toilets in rural India by October 2019, at a projected cost of ₹1.96 lakh crore. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the need for toilets in his 2014 Independence Day speech.

However, ‘manual scavenging’, which exists in a large number of states belies the SBM.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:

  • Removal of human excrement from public streets and "dry latrines" (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal)
  • Cleaning septic tanks
  • Cleaning gutters and sewers

Manual scavenging is a term used in India, which refers to the removal of raw (fresh and untreated) human excreta from buckets or other containers that are used as toilets or from the pits of pit latrine.

Manual scavenging involves the removal of raw human excreta using brooms and tin plates, and usually no personal protective equipment by the workers (called "scavengers") doing the job. The excreta are piled into baskets, which the workers carry on their heads to locations sometimes several kilometers away from the latrines.

Manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.

Manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems or safe faecal sludge management practices. It is thought to be the most prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Some municipalities in India still run public toilets using simple pit latrines.

Much has been spoken and written about eradication of the inhuman practice of manual scavenging but it is shameful that it continues in many parts of the country in many forms.

According to the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, about 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for livelihood and 794,000 cases of manual scavenging exist across India. The state of Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka where the majority of them are women.

Manual cleaning of latrines and removing human excreta from houses not connected to sewerage lines, from railway tracks and from other places has been the job of those who have traditionally been in the profession by caste.

Government departments have also been guilty of employing people for this menial work. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narasimha Rao government, was passed by Parliament in 1993. Manual scavenging has been legally banned under the act but it has continued in the country, as the implementation of law has not been strictly followed.

The law was made more stringent with harsher penalties in the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013" or "M.S. Rules 2013". The broad objectives of the act are to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and to maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. It also contained many measures for rehabilitation of people engaged in the work.

A time-bound plan was envisaged for this. But implementation has lagged far behind plans and intentions, as can be seen from the fact that there has hardly been any prosecutions even when violations of the law have taken place with the knowledge of and at the behest of authorities.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that there were 9.6 million dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed - official figures put it at less than 700,000 but campaigners say it is closer to 1.2 million. The Supreme Court has also reprimanded state governments many a times for their negligence and failure. There have also been campaigns by social organisations to put an end to the obnoxious practice.

It is those who are at the bottom rung of society who are engaged in this degrading profession. The practice is mixed with caste also because most manual scavengers are Dalits.

The crude and unhealthy methods of scavenging have serious impact on their physical and mental aspects of the scavengers. Most of them have no other skills and so cannot do any other work for their livelihood. Training them in other vocations has mostly remained a plan on paper. The caste census has starkly revealed deprivations of many kinds. But the data about manual scavenging goes beyond that, and shows gross degradation of humanity.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has no meaning while manual scavenging remains a reality.

The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually. In the Railway Budget 2016-17 Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has set the target to fit 17,000 bio-toilets in long-distance trains as part of its 'Swachh Rail - Swachh Bharat' programme. Aiming to eliminate direct discharge toilets from its entire fleet of passenger coaches by 2020-21, Railways has drawn up an action plan to replace them with environment-friendly bio-toilets.

Swachh Bharat Mission can only be made successful if manual scavenging in the states is completely eliminated and replaced with modern toilets. The progressive rehabilitation of the those dependent on scavenging has also to be planned simultaneously through skill development programmes so that they get suitably rehabilitated.

(Dr P.K.Vasudeva is retired Professor, International Trade from Icfai University)