Dignity for Those Who Clean Our Filth

Stop Killing Us, the Bhim Yatra of India’s Manual Scavengers tells the Indian Government

Image: Sudhakar Olwe

India and Indians do not like to ask this rather harsh question. As we debate caste, and whether it exists or not in the context of an upwardly mobile and fast moving urban India, there is one question which we duck. Who cleans our sewers? Our streets? And why do the children of manual scavengers children have to enter manholes and keep them unclogged?

This countrywide journey  is a unique 125 day protest launched by the Safai Karmachari Andolan. It culminates in Delhi today, April 12 and there is a public hearing at Jantar Mantar tomorrow, April 13.The 125 days' Bhim Yatra has reached Delhi after covering more than 35,000 Kms across the country from Dibrugarh – Kanyakumari – Ahmedabad – Srinagar – Delhi. The protestor travelled through 500 districts in 30 Indian states. One Hundred and Twenty Five People will give their testimonies on the 125th Birth Anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar testifying to the indignities still suffered by them.

The protest focuses on the failure by Governments to implement the law.  On March 27, 2014, the Supreme Court passed a judgement —  twelve years after a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by the Safai Karmachari Andolan— and issued specific directions to prevent and control this illegal practice as also to prosecute the offenders. The Judgement can be read here.

Each Day the Yatris and their committed team have been sending updates about their journey.

On the 107th Day, March 25, the Protestors had covered Ambala and Shahbad and in the Kurukshetra District. This is what they shared:

After the night halt in the community hall in Ambala, we started our day at 9 am in the morning. Again Saroj and Bala the liberated manual scavengers prepared and served us breakfast. After a good breakfast, we went to office of the District Collector (DC) of Ambala and met the Deputy Commissioner and submitted the memorandum along with a list of manual scavengers identified by SKA team. We told him about the Bhim Yatra and handed over the Bhim Yatra material. He assured us that he will cooperate in releasing the compensation money to the families of the persons who had died in sewer-related work. He said that he will also meet with other stake holders and speed up the process. We then boarded the bus and went on our way to the next destination.

We reached Shahbaad in Kurushetra district and held a community meeting in Ambedkar Bhawan. More than 200 safaikarmacharis were already gathered there to welcome and receive us. Most of them were women. They had a welcome ribbon stretched out. We were made to cut it and enter the Bhavan. They garlanded us and gave us sweets.

We introduced ourselves and spoke about the Bhim Yatra, its purpose and culmination event on April 13, at Delhi.  We also explained the Act, the Supreme Court Judgment and the rehabilitation schemes. We gave them pamphlets of Bhim yatra and asked them to distribute in other areas and share the purpose of the Bhim Yatra with other people. During the meeting we appealed to the people to come in large number for the culmination meeting in Delhi.

After talking about the purpose and Supreme Court judgment, we had a sharing of our experiences. The safai karamcharis discussed in detail about the various government schemes and accessibility of the same. They made many queries including why government officials don’t visit the basti to survey. Safai karamcharis also shared about the discrimination they face by the government officials.

We were surprised and pleased to see many women in the meeting. It was a beautiful with their colorful clothes and dupattas. They came with their children and talked at length about the Bhim Yatra. 

One of the yatris shared that “it was beautiful to see women  actively participating throughout the Public meeting though with their head and face covered with beautiful colored Dhupptas. We never expected that women will outnumber the men in all the meetings especially in Haryana”. After that the people gave us lunch and after eating and drinking tea we went to the DC office of Kurushetra. We met the Deputy Commissioner with the memorandum along with a list of manual scavengers and death cases with documents. The DC also met the families of the persons who had died in sewer work and assured that he will look into the case. Then we left for the next place.

We reached Fatehabaad via Kaithal and Jind around 8 pm. We held a community meeting in the Valmiki Dharamshala along with the support of other organizations namely Kisan Andolan, Ambedkar Sabha. The meeting was supposed to start at 6 pm but due to the delay in reaching the place, some of the people had gone back to their homes.  

We started the meeting by introducing ourselves. We spoke about the Bhim Yatra, the purpose and the culmination of the Bhim Yatra on April 13 meeting at Delhi. After the meeting we visited some homes of manual scavengers who had left this occupation. Then we had dinner with the community and went to sleep. The Premrathi arranged our night stay and gave us bedding.”

This is how this dogged band of safai karmacharis have traversed the length and breadth of the country drawing attention to their work, the plight, the absence of a basic sense of dignity in their lives.
Sabrangindia had reported on the justice process in early December 2015:
Does a Supreme Court judgement ensure that the fundamental rights of Indians who die while cleaning for a living will be protected? No say India’s Manual Scavengers who die in filth, cleaning our dirt, despite a judgement passed to ensure that a law enacted in 1991 (and revised and re-enacted in 2013) is actually implemented. Over 1327 persons lost their lives in the year since the Supreme Court judgement and less than three per cent received any compensation.

Despite the judgement of the Supreme Court that directs that such deaths in sewer holes and septic tanks should be stopped immediately,19 months after the judgement, deaths have continued to occur, with impunity, in sewer holes across the country.  The Safai Karamchari Andolan has reported 1327 sewer and septic tank deaths in the period since the judgement was passed in March 2014. Less than three percent have received compensation.



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