When Mayawati became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 1995, a dingy slum in a densely populated part of Lucknow was ecstatic.
This was the office of the Akhil Bharatiya Safai Majdoor Sangh (ABSMS) — a union of manual scavengers, mostly Dalit men and women who lift and clean human excreta by hand.
The union organised a grand meeting in Mayawati’s honour and said India’s first Dalit woman CM was a new beginning for the millions of manual scavengers, who are a victim of India’s millennia-old caste system.
But the hopes were quickly snuffed out when the workers realised their leader Mayawati — whose party stormed to power on the back of the Dalit vote — wasn’t interested in solving the manual scavenging crisis.
“In our memorandum to the state government, we demanded freedom for manual scavengers from the dirty job. But surprisingly, the CM didn’t react to our plea,” said Shyam Lal Valmiki, national general secretary of ABSMS.
Their other demands such as the abolition of privatisation in sanitation work in municipal bodies and the establishment of schools exclusively for Dalits also went unheard.
Shyam said the Bahujan Samaj Party counted the Dalit vote as its strongest pillar but manual scavengers faced the maximum discrimination during Mayawati’s tenures as CM.
“In her last tenure from May 2007 to 2012, the BSP government opened 114,848 posts of safai karamcharis. At that time, we approached her again demanding jobs for manual scavengers, but to no avail,” Shyam said.
He said the present Samajwadi Party (SP) government had also done little to rehabilitate manual scavengers.
In 1993, Parliament banned the employment of manual scavengers as well as construction of dry latrines. In 2013, another act was passed to curb the menace.
But activists say the state has more than 10,000 manual scavengers as implementation of the law has been lax.
In 2014, the UP social welfare department identified 53 manual scavengers in Lucknow and gave them Rs 40,000 in four installments under a central-government-run welfare scheme. The Lucknow administration also identified 4,149 houses that used dry latrines but only a third of them were finally converted into toilets with flush.
Activist Bezwada Wilson, who won the Magsaysay award this year for his work in eradicating manual scavenging, says UP is one of the worst-performing states in uprooting the caste-based practice.
In addition to traditional employers like the Railways, local municipalities often also recruit manual scavengers.
State officials say apart from Lucknow, the practice is rampant in districts such as Kanpur, Agra, Badaun, Pilibhit, Barabanki, Unnao and Gorakhpur.
Many manual scavengers, surprisingly, have high expectations from the Bharatiya Janata Party.
“None of the governments so far has given us a single penny. It’s the first time the amount of Rs 40,000 is given to manual scavengers,” said Asha Valmiki, a manual scavenger in old Lucknow.
She also hailed PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of making India a manual-scavenging-free nation by 2019. “It’s indeed a good move. I am sure we would get freedom from the profession,” she added hopefully.
This comes at a time when other members of the Dalit community are protesting against rising caste-based atrocities across India and see the BJP as one of the main reasons for their plight.
Uttar Pradesh goes to polls early next year and the Dalit vote is expected to determine the winner of the elections.