‘We let a person die for Rs 300, that’s our kirdar’

From the days of Guru Ram Das’ healing touch to being pushed to the periphery by masands and pujaris; from being turned into ‘untouchables’ during the Sikh kingdom to being ‘used’ by giving the Bible during the British Empire; from being labelled Harijan by Gandhi in the pre-Independence era to being forced to clean blood-laced bodies after Operation Bluestar… That is how Maninder Kang’s classic short story Kutti Vehra criss-crosses four centuries in a ghetto of scavengers in Amritsar.

‘We let a person die for Rs 300, that’s our kirdar’

sanjiv@tribunemail.com

Vishav Bharti in Chandigarh

From the days of Guru Ram Das’ healing touch to being pushed to the periphery by masands and pujaris; from being turned into ‘untouchables’ during the Sikh kingdom to being ‘used’ by giving the Bible during the British Empire; from being labelled Harijan by Gandhi in the pre-Independence era to being forced to clean blood-laced bodies after Operation Bluestar… That is how Maninder Kang’s classic short story Kutti Vehra criss-crosses four centuries in a ghetto of scavengers in Amritsar. Nothing changes. The story ends where it starts. As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, he remains just another footnote in the history of scavengers as we have failed him too.


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Eight decades back, the Mahatma compared the work of a scavenger to the services offered by a mother to her children: “A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby. The Bhangi protects and safeguards the health 

of the entire community by maintaining sanitation for it.”

Even Bhagat Singh, whose name Punjab swears by, would call the Muslim scavenger in the jail his “bebe” or mother; he would eat food from his hands.

Miserable existence

Eight decades after the launch of Bhangi Mukti Andolan by Gandhi, the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated. At a time when development is taking place in every sector, this community is still living a miserable life.

Agrees Vishav, an LLM student at Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University, who hails from a family of manual scavengers. He had carried out a research on the status of implementation of laws enacted for them. On the basis of interviewing 189 sewerage workers, he found that traditional manual scavenging, in which scavengers carry human excreta on head, is no more practised in the city, but they still live and work in dismal conditions.

In almost 20 per cent of the area, residents make septic tanks outside their homes and the scavengers clean it manually as and when they fill up. “I interviewed around 200 scavengers or their families but none of the ‘genuine’ scavengers on regular jobs could see himself retiring. Each died much before the retirement,” he says.

He found several people from OBC or General Category taking jobs originally meant for the Dalits, but “not one of them goes into sewerage”. It is only Mazhabi Sikhs or Balmikis who take up the risky job, he says. “They work with a grim hope that one day they will get permanent employment, which never happens.”

Of the 189 interviewed scavengers, the law graduate could find the child of only one who could study beyond Plus Two.

Vishav’s research found that the laws, including The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 and Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, had not been implemented at the ground level till date.

As per the report of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, 30 persons have lost lives in manholes across Punjab since 1993.

However, the number is much higher, according to the Association for Democratic Rights (AFDR), Punjab. One may debate the number, but what is not disputed is that the families don’t get justice or compensation in form of jobs or money that the law provides for.

On June 28, Azhar Ali, a worker hired by a contractor, was lowered into a manhole in Ludhiana. As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, it is illegal to employ scavengers for manual cleaning of insanitary latrines, sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment. However, Ali, bare-bodied, was lowered into the manhole, where he died.

AFDR’s startling findings

In July, the AFDR, Punjab, came up with a fact-finding report on the Azhar Ali incident and found that instead of registering a case under Section 302 (murder) of the IPC, the local police registered an FIR under Section 174 (investigation of unnatural death). The AFDR launched an investigation into the various cases and came up with astonishing facts about how the Punjab government has been giving a raw deal to manual scavengers.

The apathy of the successive governments can be gauged from the fact that it took the SAD-BJP government two years to notify the Act. “It points to the state of affairs in Punjab that despite a complete ban on the practice, a large number of workers have lost their lives,” says Ludhiana-based Prof Jagmohan Singh, president of AFDR.

The Department of Local Bodies is required to carry out a survey of manual scavengers and rehabilitate them. But neither was the survey done, nor did any rehabilitation take place.

Besides, Deputy Commissioners were required to constitute district-level vigilance committees, which never happened.

The report also found that despite continuous deaths, police in the state have never acted against contractors and officials under stringent sections of the IPC. Police action has always been under Section 174, which lets the contractors get away easily, it said.

The report found that the municipal committees and corporations in Punjab have found a new way to escape from this law by getting the sewerage-cleaning work done through contractors.

Scheme not implemented

Not only police and local bodies, the state government too has collectively failed the scavengers. A National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers (NSLRS) was launched in 1992. It introduced various schemes for the rehabilitation of scavengers.

However, these are yet to see the light of day in Punjab. The Pre-Matric Scholarship for the children of those engaged in occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards was started, but Punjab has not assigned a single rupee in the budget for the past five years.

Gyan Chand Diwali, member of the State Commission for Scheduled Castes, says it is common practice with the police and administration to save contractors after the deaths of scavengers. “We allow a person to be hired to die for just Rs 300,” he says.

Agrees Geja Ram, chairman, State Commission for Safai Karamcharis. “When alive or dead, a scavenger’s life matters no more than a dog’s.” He questions what the governments have done for the scavengers. “In  his last term, the Prime Minister launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but did he care how a scavenger works? Even in a developed state like Punjab, scavengers go down the manhole without a safety kit.”

Angry, he points at the society’s dubious character. “Look at the kirdar of our people. They give hefty tips to waiters in five-star hotels but crib about giving money to garbage collectors or scavengers who clean the sewerage. People rarely feel any pain when they see young men being lowered into the manhole. We, as a society, have failed them.”

TOP QUOTE ON SOCIAL APATHY

Unfortunately, a substantial segment of the urban society has become insensitive to the plight of the poor and downtrodden. They do not want to understand why a person is made to enter a manhole without safety gear and proper equipment. They look the other way when the body of a worker who dies in the manhole is taken out with the help of ropes and cranes. — Supreme Court in its 2011 judgment

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