Despite stern reminders from UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the government is all set to miss its 2007 deadline for eradicating the inhuman practice of manual scavenging.
Lakhs of Dalits are still employed all over the country as manual scavengers for removing and carrying human excreta from toilets that are not connected to a drainage system. In the process, they are subjected to not just extreme forms of untouchability but also several health hazards.
In 2004, the government had resolved to end the practice before 2007, after the Planning Commission drew up a comprehensive plan. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation was entrusted with the task. With just a month to go, the task is far from achieved. "The government cannot meet the deadline. Not enough has been done in that direction," said Santosh Chaudhary, chairperson, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.
Kumari Selja, Minister of State for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation conceded: "2010 might be a more realistic deadline."
Chaudhary is only echoing UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi's concerns on the problem. The Congress president had recently written to the Prime Minister expressing concern that "very little or no progress has been made on the issue of liberation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers." Gandhi's letter, a copy of which is with HT on Saturday, was a follow-up to her communication as chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) in October 2004 advising the government to eradicate the problem "within a given period of time".
The Prime Minister has assured the UPA chairperson of 'concrete and time-bound action' and has instructed the ministries of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Social Justice and Empowerment to hasten efforts towards eradication of manual scavenging in August 2006. The ministries have not moved beyond preparing a status note on the problem.
"We are preparing a Cabinet note. We have asked the states for data," Selja said. She added that the ministry is taking a realistic view, because 'ultimately the states have to eradicate the problem'.
But, says Bezwada Wilson who refused to be a manual scavenger like his parents and formed the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA): "At the current speed, the target cannot be achieved even by 2010." The SKA approached the Supreme Court in 2003 for a ban on manual scavenging. Ironically, there already is a law in place—the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. It was passed 13 years ago, but the government continues to struggle with the problem.
"The law is a football. The implementation of the ban was moved from the Social Justice and Empowerment ministry to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. Ever since, the two ministries have been blaming each other for non-implementation," said Chaudhary. She added that despite spending Rs 750 crore on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers the problem persists.
Chaudhary said the problem exists in most states, including the Nand Nagri area of Delhi. She had suggested a meeting of all chief ministers to be held on the matter, a suggestion that has been agreed to but will only be implemented next year, long after the deadline has passed.
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