Religious fundamentalism and neoliberalism are inextricably intertwined – both ignore the unprivileged sections of society. This emboldens Hindutva to move ahead with further oppression. The recent announcement of Swachh Bharat 2.0 in the Union Budget 2021 flatters to deceive. How will the country reinforce 'swachhata' having turned a blind eye to the plight of manual scavengers?
Sadly, it is not surprising to note that more than 340 persons have died due to manual scavenging over the past five years, with Uttar Pradesh topping the list with 52 deaths. Manual scavenging is showing no signs of stopping in urban India where certain sub-castes of Dalits like Valmikis and Helas are typically forced to engage in this inhumane work due to poverty and other factors. A report revealed that 95% of manual scavengers are women who are engaged in cleaning septic tanks, sewers and railway tracks without protection gear.
Caste: An Anathema
The caste system in the neoliberal era is nothing but a division of labour which is not spontaneous, but historically conditioned. Brahminical hegemony compels Dalits to do the heinous task of cleaning human excreta that we flush down the toilet. State-sponsored caste oppression cast as a low-wage occupation. The payment is so low that labourers cannot even meet their daily necessities, including food. The state even comes up with new titles like 'Safai Karmachari' and 'swasthya kamgar'. It is just to glorify their roles and provide an escape from the harsh realities that they face. Social discrimination, caste prejudice and financial inadequacies force them to choose the same occupation, generation after generation.
Neoliberal Hindutva and Manual Scavenging
Manual scavenging has been banned since1993 and the landmark 'The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act' was enforced in 2013. This law rule that engaging a person as a manual scavenger is a punishable offense. However, no convictions have been made so far, which indicates the presence of many loopholes. The private sectors further takes advantage of this situation to contractualise Dalit workers and pay them lower wages. This ultimately forces them to do the work with the greater risk of occupational health diseases.
While at the Kumbh Mela in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of five manual scavengers, which included two women workers. He had thanked them for their karma yog and even while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had called the work of sanitation workers a "spiritual experience." However, have these concerns been reflected in the budget?
Laxity towards the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) is a new normal. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a marked overall increase in funds for sanitation, but that was still inadequate. A total of Rs 100 crore was allocated for the scheme, which is Rs 10 crore lesser than last year. No allocations were made for pre-matric scholarship for children of manual scavengers, an amount which was Rs 25 crore the last time around.
It is the duty of the government, local self-government, and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to intervene in this matter by making mechanised cleaning mandatory. Kerala and Hyderabad have taken a remarkable approach step forward by deploying the 'Bandicoot Robot' to rid people of this dangerous and highly objectionable job.
The Hindutva regime's interests lie in ease of business motive policies that exacerbate inequality, occupational subjugation, and worsen socio-economic issues. Technology-driven solutions don’t wipe out the issues of manual scavenging unless one annihilates caste.
When the pandemic created great havoc in the lives of millions of people, these 1.2 million “safai karamcharis” worked without a break, without personal protective equipment to prevent them from starving and so that we lead smooth lives. The Indian sanitation policy, 'Swachh Bharat', has done precious little for the upliftment of this community. So, a community-centric model should be formulated to improve the welfare of manual scavengers. Capital subsidy disbursal and skill development are needed to fulfill the long-term objectives. Article 21 guarantees every citizen a right to life with dignity; it shouldn’t remain ornamental.
“Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind.”- Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
The writer is pursuing his masters in economics from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views are personal.