Flushing Out Scavengers from the Plan.

8:27 Hrs- Chennai Central Station… Sounds of bustling feet and platform announcements that dies in the din of the crowded, sweaty humanity; a trumpet blare followed by a jerk and the train leaves the platform pushing and huffing.

Manual Scavenger at the Chennai Central Station

Manual Scavenger at the Chennai Central Station

A kind of ethereal calm sets in.

Then, as if out of nowhere, a woman walks in. Dressed in a blue saree and a bright neon coat that screams “ALL SERVICES”, she purposefully strides to the end of the platform and jumps right into the tracks where the train had just left. A couple of others join her and they begin working with hose pipes and brooms. And what exactly do they do? They earn their living from cleaning shit from the train tracks- a day in the life of a manual scavenger and nothing more.

Amrithini (40) works as a contract employee of the Indian Railways and she is paid to sweep away human excreta from the tracks of the Chennai Central station every morning. Ironically, Amrithini doesn’t complain.  Her poverty and social status compel her  to compromise on her health and dignity.She earns a monthly salary of Rs 5000- Rs 6000 for this inhuman form of labour. Moreover, she is satisfied with the work she does since she does not have any better option. She claims-

“I am happy with my work. This work is easier. Earlier, I used carry bricks on my head, which was back-breaking.”

At the Chennai Central station, manual scavengers work in three shifts- 5 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 11 pm and 11 pm to 8 pm. While the Supreme Court has pulled up the Centre on manual scavenging in the cities and other areas, the practice continues unabatedly in railway stations.

In the Railway Budget 2012-13, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has announced an outlay of Rs 500 crore to install 2,500 bio-toilets on passenger trains. However, no time-bound framework has been suggested. In fact, this announcement about bio-toilets has figured in the Railway Budgets of the last few years and the tracks in the Chennai railway station continue to be cleaned by 50 to 60 workers.

Critics of this quick-fix solution brought out by the Railways, point out that the scheme does not provide for the rehabilitation of the workers who will become unemployed when the bio-toilets are installed. Also, there is a high-infrastructure requirement in all stations to materialize the bio-toilet plan which has not been taken into consideration by the authorities. As Bezwada Wilson, Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan clearly says,

 “Bio-toilets are just a hog-wash. It is the lip-service from the Ministry. No time-bound plan has been chalked out for bio-toilets.”

When informed of the alternatives proposed by the Railway authorities to manual scavenging, Amrithini is bewildered. She reminds us that they (manual scavengers) have been working for the Indian Railways for a long time and how can they be left in the lurch without proper rehabilitation.

A railway official says, “Going-green is a remarkable initiative as it will stop the corrosion of tracks, but overlooking the rehabilitation part of cleaners is deplorable.”

Ashif Shaikh, convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, notes,

“The recognition of manual scavengers working at stations is the main issue. Un-recognised manual scavengers are unlikely to get any benefit if bio-toilets are introduced.”

Ashif puts the blame on the definition of manual scavenging, mentioned in the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act, 1993. The Act recognises only dry-latrine cleaners as manual scavengers. He adds-

“The denial mode of the Railways stems from the contractual nature of manual scavengers at stations. Stations issue tenders and outsource cleaning work to contractors—for example, Sulabh. This is one of the ways the station people can wash their hands off and prevent their getting implicated in manual scavenging.”

At the Chennai Central station, the cleaning work is outsourced, and none of the workers is a permanent employee. Most of the workers stay in the vicinity of the station. As trains leave the station, a fleet of workers clean what is left behind. They flush, sweep and pick human waste with small shovels and metal pans.  A supervisor who oversees manual scavengers says,

“We use hose pipes to clean the tracks near the platform where diesel has spilt. Elsewhere, we ask workers to clean the tracks.”

According to Bezwada Wilson, 

“The Railways do not come under the purview of the new Bill.  According to the Bill, only a notification can be sent to the Railways.”

The Prohibihion of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill which was tabled 2012 is supposedly an improved and more inclusive version of the previously mention 1993 Bill. In reference to the definition of ‘manual scavengers”, this apparently progressive Bill has defined it thus,

…a person engaged or employed… for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine… or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central or a State Government may notify..”

As this definition clearly states, the Central or State Government can only notify via the Official Gazette regarding manual scavenging within the Railway jurisdiction and does not really pressurize the Railways to act. With the Railways, the largest employer of manual scavengers in India, not under the purview of the new Bill, an end to the scourge of this distressing practice remains a distant dream.