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Manual Scavenging a ‘Career Option’ and a part of ‘Skill India’

Modi: “A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers, you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike.”
Peoples Voice on August 7, 2015 - 6:10 pm in Governance

What was conceived by the Narendra Modi-led NDA government as bringing employers and job seekers on a single platform seems to now promote and allow the hiring of the prohibited act of manual scavenging at the click of a button.

Cleaning of sewers, descending into manholes, removing night-soil (human excreta) using a broom find a place in the National Career Services (NCS) portal that was launched recently as a part of Skill India, according to The Hindu newspaper’s Aug 04 report.

For instance, under the ‘unorganised sector’ panel of the website, a “Sweeper, Sewer” is “expected to” clean sewage systems by “using various cleaning instruments,” including bamboo or iron rod, and collecting debris and refuse in a bucket using a spade and handing this bucket to “helper outside manhole.” Similarly, the “Sweeper, Wet” description lists a “key competency” of removing “night soil using spade and broom.”

On its launch by PM Modi on July 20, the portal was to link two crore job seekers with nearly nine lakh establishments. Modi had then said: “it is essential for Indian society to develop a consciousness towards ‘dignity of labour’.”

However, advocates Clifton D’ Rozario and Maitreyi Krishnan — who had taken the issue of manual scavenging to the Karnataka High Court — say: “These dehumanising [definitions] are the very practice due to which the manual scavenging community has been stigmatised, ostracised and discriminated. [It] is now being proudly promoted as a ‘career option’.”

Furthermore, employing persons under these definitions have been made punishable with imprisonment under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 1993 & 2013.

The Supreme Court order (dated March 27, 2014) in the Safai Karamchari Andolan vs. Union of India case, where the court observes that handling human excrements with bare hands, brooms or metal scrappers or in baskets is an “inhuman practice,” while in November 2008, the Chennai High Court had directed that the cleaning of sewage could only be through mobile mechanical pumps or other devices.

Acknowledging that the description did indeed become promotion of manual scavenging, M. Shivanna, Chairperson, National Safai Karamchari Commission, said, “This is definitely wrong and amounts to promoting such activities. Though we have been insisting that Sucking and Jetting Machines should be used, the website implies that descending into manholes is also a part of the job.”

Incredibly, the job profile of a “Safai Karamchari” and a “scavenger” is listed as being “mildly hazardous or dangerous” — putting them in the same category as “astrologer” and “palmist” that come under unorganised sector careers.

While the risks for “Safai Karamchari” include “lung, respiratory, neurological diseases, infection, biological diseases, suffocation, fatigue,” for an astrologer or palmist or money lender, the dangers include “heart diseases, depression and anxiety, fatigue, stress.”

In response to The Hindu’s exposure, the Ministry of Labour & Employment has offered an unconditional apology for having listed manual scavenging as a career option in its website. It has said that the post has been removed from the NCS portal forthwith and ‘’the error is regretted.’’ Is it simply an ‘error’?

I don’t think the ministry should have taken it so seriously and apologised. The head of this government, while he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, had expressed similar opinion in 2007 on manual scavenging and even after its exposure by the media he didn’t bother to respond till date, leave alone expressing regret.

Whether collection of human excreta or cleaning of gutters – which has condemned lakhs of people to a life of indignity since ages – could be considered a ‘Spiritual Experience.’ Definitely not. Everybody would yell. Well, Mr Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, had a different take on this

A book ‘Karmayog’ authored by Narendra Modi was published by Gujarat government in 2007. It was actually a collection of Modi’s lectures at the annual bureaucratic conclave called Chintan Shibir. On pages 48 and 49, Modi qualifies the Valmikis’ centuries-old caste-based vocation – of cleaning up others’ filth, including toilets – as “experience in spirituality”!

Modi says, “I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation.” He adds, “At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries. This should have continued generation after generation. It is impossible believe that their ancestors did not have the choice of adopting any other work or business.”

The news item was published in the Times of India sometime in mid-November 2007. Perhaps it went unnoticed. Busy in polls, Gujarat Congress leaders didn’t have time to see it. Dalit activist-turned-politician Pravin Rashtrapal caught hold of a scanned copy of the relevant pages and raised the matter in Rajya Sabha, calling Modi “anti-Dalit”. This was almost a year later.

But it was later translated in a few Tamil newspapers and it resulted in a massive reaction of Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Not only they staged protests for calling their menial job “spiritual experience” but Modi’s effigies were burnt in different parts of the state. Sensing trouble Modi immediately withdrew 5,000 copies of the book, but still stuck to his opinion.

In his March 2013 report in Kafila internet portal, Subhash Gatade writes: Two years later (2009), addressing 9,000-odd safai karmacharis, Modi likened the safai karmacharis’ job of cleaning up others dirt to that of a temple priest. He told them, “A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers, you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike.”

It could be asked if Modi valued safai karmacharis so highly, why was it that he had begun outsourcing all the menial jobs for a very low pay, between Rs 3,000 and Rs 3,500 per month per worker. Why they were not being employed on a permanent basis? A leading Dalit poet raised an altogether different question “Why didn’t it occur to Modi that the spirituality involved in doing menial jobs hasn’t ever been experienced by the upper castes?”

Subhash gatade rightly quotes Dr Ambedkar, ‘’The system of untouchability has been a goldmine for the Hindus. This system affords 60 millions of untouchables to do the dirty work of scavenging and sweeping to the 240 million Hindus who are debarred by their religion to do such dirty work. But the work must be done for the Hindus and who else than the untouchables?

When the highest political authority holds such a decadent view on manual scavenging, there are a few civil servants who have matching views. Central government had made budgetary allotment to uplift the families of manual scavengers. Scholarship for their children to study and vocational training to the manual scavengers to employ them in other jobs were to be met from the fund provided by the centre.

A few years ago, the son of a manual scavenger from the state of MP applied for a scholarship for his study. One IAS bureaucrat turned down the request on the plea that none from his family at that time was engaged in manual scavenging. Can you beat this type of cruelty and stupidity?

The politician who viewed manual scavenging a spiritual experience, the bureaucrat who refused to release scholarship to the Dalit student because none in his family was in manual scavenging at the time of the request and the authorities who included manual scavenging a career option in the National Career Services portal just don’t deserve to hold any public office.

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