Railways pulled up over scavengers

A draft bill allows employing manual scavengers if they are provided protective gears

By Moyna
Published: Wednesday 31 October 2012

ON October 10, the Delhi High Court came down heavily on the Union Ministry of Railways and asked it to submit a detailed plan with “specific time frames and targets” to eliminate manual scavenging. It has asked the ministry to submit the plan by November 21.

But the relief may be short lived as Parliament has cleared a bill that allows manual scavenging if individuals are provided with protective gears.

imageThe Indian Railways, which has one of the world’s largest rail networks, is said to be the biggest employer of manual scavengers. It has been under scrutiny since 2003, after Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a union of manual scavengers, filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court. The petition had sought proper implementation of the 1993 Act that bans manual scavenging and recommends their rehabilitation. In 2011, the apex court handed over the part of the case dealing with the railway ministry to the Delhi High Court.

While the ministry denies employing manual scavengers officially, the affidavits it has submitted in the court in the past nine years suggest that barring a few trains, the railways does not employ any technology to keep its 80,000 toilets and 115,000 kilometres of tracks clean (see box). A senior official with the ministry, who does not wish to be named, says, “A few people are employed for cleaning rail tracks and dry latrines through contractors but they are given protective gear and cleaning implements.” Bezwada Wilson, convenor of SKA, says it is difficult to count how many manual scavengers work for the railways as they are employed as sweepers.

New bill, old flaws

The bill that aims to replace the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Act of 1993 says individuals if provided with protective gears while cleaning human excreta cannot be labelled manual scavengers.

Shomona Khanna, senior advocate representing SKA, says the bill talks about identifying and rehabilitaing manual scavengers. But it does not mention actions to be taken against erring authorities. It also remains silent about who should rehabilitate the manual scavengers.

While the 1993 law had problems, Wilson says, it stressed on the use of technology and innovations to replace manual scavengers. The 2012 bill stresses on how to eliminate manual scavengers. Even their elimination is not required if protective gear is provided, he adds. Wilson points out more problems. A clause in the bill allows the ministry to decide when it wishes to notify the law for the railways. “Parliament should decide when the Act should be implemented, not the perpetrator,” he adds.

CONCRETE WASHABLE APRON: This is a raised section on the rail tracks with waterjets, meant to wash away faeces from the tracks at station. In the 2004 affidavit, the ministry said it planned to equip 376 of the total 8,025 stations in the country with the aprons. In 2006, it raised the target to 471 by 2012-13. But in 2011 affidatives, it said aprons were functioning at 191 of 278 stations where trains halt for long. Now the deadline is 2016.


SYSTEM: This ensures that the waste is discharged only when the train is moving, thus not dirtying the tracks at the station. In the 2004 affidavit, the railways said it planned to fit the toilets in 250 coaches a year. By 2006, it said it had installed the toilets in 250 coaches in four years, and raised the target to 1,000 coaches a year. But in its September 2011 affidavit, it brought down the target to 200 coaches a year, and said the technology is not suitable for expansion.

BIO-TOILETS: Here only water trickles down the track; the sludge is retained in a tank where it is decomposed. The railways mentioned using the technology in 2006 affidavit. By March 2011, it installed bio-toilets in 48 coaches. In September 2011, it said it would be able to achieve the 5,000 coaches a year target after five years.

VACUUM TOILETS: These are similar to those used in aeroplanes. The railways mentioned initiating procurement of the toilets in 2006. The procurement process was on till March 2011. There was no mention of the technology in subsequent affidavits.

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