125 day Bhim Yatra against manual scavenging ends
To celebrate Ambedkar's 125th birth anniversary, a bunch of people boarded an orange coloured bus at Dibrugarh, 125 days ago, on 10 December. A big blue banner declared that it was the Bhim Yatra bus. The Yatra's aim was to demand justice for manual scavengers.
At first there were 9 people who boarded it - activists, social workers, people showing solidarity and manual scavengers themselves. By the time the Yatra, there were 45 people in the bus.
Read- Songs of the dawn: how the Bhim Yatra articulated protest and hope
45 year old Raja Kharoshia Valmik from Panna, Madhya Pradesh was one of them. Being from the Valmiki caste, Raja never thought it to be derogatory when he watched his parents do manual scavenging as a livelihood. Like scores of others he grew up to think so much about life was normal - the untouchability, the lack of human dignity and constant odour of shit surrounding everyday life.
It was when his father made him study that he finally clasped the pen and graduated with a BSc. degree from Bhopal. "I always dreamt of becoming a social worker who would work to change this country. Today I'm a government school teacher at Chhatarpur. I teach maths and science. But social work is what I do in everyday life," says Raja.
Raja Valmik from MP grew up thinking that untouchability, indignity & odour of shit - were normal"
When Raja heard about the Bhim Yatra he was determined to be on it, even if it meant leaving his two small kids and wife for 27 days. He travelled for the time in his life to Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
There was a detailed plan to visit 500 districts, spanning across 30 states to raise awareness on manual scavenging and detailed arrival and departure timings into each village that manual scavengers lived. "But we found that the Yatra was simply usurped by its people," laughs Dr. Bezwada Wilson, of the Safai Karamchari Andolan.
Photo: Getty Images
Plans were changed according to the needs of the community. "Some days we stayed up till 4AM talking about issues that touched a chord with the manual scavengers," says Bezwada.
According to Raja, the experience was eye opening. "What I saw in the Bhim Yatra is that the state of manual scavengers everywhere is pathetic - whether it is Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh or Assam. Manual scavengers continue to die in sewer lines and septic tanks. And nobody cares," says Raja.
"The moments that will haunt me most are faces of people who have lost their loved ones in septic tanks. A newly married widow, or babies just a couple of months old who lost their fathers to manual scavenging... It has only strengthened my resolve to fight to eradicate it," says Raja.
No dignity, even in death
Santosh is sitting clutching a few papers in a crowded stage at Jantar Mantar. While prominent journalists, activists and thinkers speak their mind about manual scavengers at the Capital's closing of the Bhim Yatra on day 125, Santosh made his way to the Yatra from Meerut.
His brother Ballu was just 20 years old when he slipped and fell into a 40 feet septic tank of Mithaas, the company he was working for, at a salary of barely Rs 3000 a month. When he fell, another boy, Dinesh tried to go down to rescue him. But the toxic fumes made them both unconscious and they died on the spot. This happened five years ago and Santosh has received no compensation for his brother's death except a few thousand rupees from the company.
"1.8 lakh households in India are engaged in manual scavenging. Maharashtra tops the list with 63,713"
The latest Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in July last year reveals that 1.8 lakh households are engaged in manual scavenging across India. Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.
Also read- Bhim Yatra: a bus full of hope for the manual scavenger
Wilson estimates, through the Andolan's network, that over 1,200 worker deaths on the sewer line go unrecorded and unnoticed each year.
"The Bhim Yatra offers the promise of taking up issues such as mine collectively," says Santosh.
Starting an unprecedented conversation
When the Yatra completed 100 days, Wilson and others wrote a letter to President Pranab Mukherjee demanding that they eradicate manual scavenging, and be given compensation for those who died. Their letter and various RTIs filed across India have fetched no response.
"The Bhim Yatra will not end. This is just the beginning of a long fight," says Wilson, already preparing for a national convention.
The amazing part seems to be that the manual scavengers themselves have never felt this kind of a unity and awareness about their own livelihood and rights before.
Read more- BR Ambedkar: why Left, Right & Centre are romancing this theorist of resistance
"Yesterday all the safai karamcharis were dancing and shouting slogans and celebrating at Ambedkar Bhavan. How can the society make such vibrant people as slaves?" asks Wilson.
What have you learnt about Ambedkar? I ask 35 year old Bhattu Lal Valmik who is a manual scavenger from Panna, who rode the bus for a few days when it toured Madhya Pradesh.
Photo: Shriya Mohan/ Catch News
"That freedom and equality is our birth right. And we should fight to preserve it," comes a sharp response.
Creating that awareness, may in itself, be the best way of honouring Ambedkar today.
Edited by Aditya Menon
Video: Meet the young Dalits who marched across India calling for an end to manual scavenging
In the last two years, 1,268 workers have died while cleaning out sewers. Yet most people are barely aware of how widespread manual scavenging – where workers remove untreated human excreta from sewers and latrines – still is and how deadly the job can be.
On Thursday, nearly a hundred young Dalits from across the country concluded Bhima Yatra, a 125-day march across the country to raise awareness about the apathy and discrimination faced by sewer cleaners and other sanitation workers.
“Every death of a worker inside the sewer is a political murder, not a mere accident," the workers chanted. "Till manual scavenging ends, no political party can rightly claim the political legacy of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar."
A majority of those who participated in the 125-day campaign that started from Dibrugarh in Assam in December 2015 and traveled to more than 500 districts were family members of Dalit workers who have died while cleaning or clearing blockages inside sewers.
14 Apr 16
The Deccan Herald
Manual scavenging will be stopped immediately: Rai
Activist protest the age-old discriminatory practice
New Delhi: The Delhi government would stop all manual scavenging in the national capital with immediate effect. Transport Minister Gopal RaiWednesday assured it to activists gathered from across the country at Jantar Mantar to protest the age-old discriminatory practice.
Manual scavenging is prevalent in parts of Purani Delhi (old city).
The protesters submitted a charter of demands to the central government to demand an urgent action. The demonstration was organized at the end of 125-day Bheem Yatra which travelled through 500 districts across the country. The Yatra was aimed at drawing attention to "unacceptable levels of violations and atrocities that manual scavengers face in their daily life".
The demonstration at Jantar Mantar was organised at the culmination of 125-day Bheem Yatra which was aimed at creating awareness against manual scavenging. The Yatra travelled through 500 districts across the country.
At least 50 people from the manual scavengers narrated their heartrending stories before a gathering of jurists, professors and social activists. Bezwada Wilson, the National Convenor of Safai Karmachari Andoalan, accused political of appropriating legacy of Amabedkar without doing anything for such marginalized people as Safai Karmachari are.
Prominent social activist Aruna Roy, jurist Usha Ramanathan, Paul Diwakar and journalist P Sainath addressed the gathering.
Eminent jusrists, writers and academicians who have extended solidarity and unflinching support to the andolan are Justice V N Khare (Former Chief Justice of India), Romila Thapar (Historian), Prof P M Bhargava (Senior Scientist), Justice Prabha Sridevan (Former Judge), N Yugandhar (Retd. IAS), K R Venugopal (Retd. IAS), Justice A P Shah (Former Judge), Justice Rajinder Sachar (Former Judge), Indira Jaising (Ex ASG).
DH News Service
Written by UPENDRA BAXI | Published:April 18, 2016 12:25 am
Babasaheb was not merely the architect of the Indian Constitution but also remains a towering voice of its living Constitution.
The political appropriation of an icon is scarcely a new happening; nor is the collective amnesia of a founding figure. But when appropriation occurs by a thousand unkind cuts, the assassins of memory triumph, merely realign a past figure to the needs of a contemporary times, and choose to bypass urgent messages from a recent past.
Many messages of BR Ambedkar, fondly called Babasaheb, are now unforgivably forgotten. While extolling worship (bhakti) in religion as a “road to the salvation of the soul”, Babasaheb decried hero-worship in politics as “a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. A sincere constitutional tribute will avoid degradation to national life by acts of routine political sycophancy and instead put in practice what Babasaheb said and struggled for. He was a doer, not a sloganeer.
Although India has at last produced a Dalit bourgeoisie, it has yet to produce a postcolonial intellectual like Ambedkar who felt haunted (to borrow the words of Jacques Lacan) by the “schizoid-paranoid… murmur” of a million “anonymous persecutors”. But he developed the ability and the courage to ask questions about the ubiquitous injustices of social, political and economic orderings. A restless and dynamic politician, reformer, crusader and thinker, Ambedkar wished to “annihilate the caste” system, “restore the title deeds of humanity” to untouchables, and to liberate India from “Dalit-hunting” — rape, arson, stripping and parading, plunder, killing, and massacre of untouchables.
The constitutional order that he sculpted, he thought, would deliver us from that evil. We have now a system of reservations, a civil rights act, an atrocities act, and an abolition of manual scavenging act as late as 2013, and a plethora of statutory agencies and administrative devices. Surely, India reckons high for its GLP (gross legislative product), regardless of its GDP. Exuberant in normative law but feeble in real-life enforcement, a 66-year-old republic has not matched Babasaheb’s poignant urgency for swift action against the social apartheid of the caste system and politics of production of social indifference. The constitutional duties under Article 51A now require all citizens to be at least indignation-entrepreneurs.
To take but just one example: As late as end of March 2014, the Supreme Court witheringly bemoaned the unconstitutional plight of increasing numbers of manual scavengers and required the states to take appropriate statutory measures. On September 23, 2015, the Delhi High Court had to order the “first step” to survey the plight of untouchables in the municipal corporations and Delhi cantonments!
The nationwide 125-day Bhim Yatra (Dibrugarh se Dilli tak) culminated in Delhi on April 13, 2016, with a stark message: “Stop killing us”. The Safai Karamchari Andolan has documented 1,268 reported instances of death in sewer cleaning between March 2014 and March 2016. The untouchable right to be and to remain human has to be protected at all costs: Live and let others live is the constitutional summons, not live so as to condemn others to die or suffer a living death.
Ambedkar shared the perspective of Jawaharlal Nehru; somehow to combine the best (creative) elements that will compose an “organic whole” — some forms of “nationalism and political freedom” and “social freedom” and the dream of a “classless society”. He also agreed for expeditious removal of “all invidious social and customary barriers” impeding “the full development of the individual as well as of any group”. But, for Ambedkar, the leitmotif of Indian constitutionalism was a war on contradictions, which we are fated to endure but also must combat.
His oft-quoted observation is: “On the 26th January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions… In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny [this principle]… How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” He summates life under the Constitution as a series of lived and embodied contradictions. What is liberal (and now postliberal) democracy if not a series of structural contradictions that are lived and embodied by each and every citizen, party and leader?
However, Babasaheb did not enunciate any theory of contradictions. Were these aspirational/ institutional, normative/ institutional, material/ symbolic, (in Mao’s binary) antagonistic/ non-antagonistic, cultural/ civilisational contradictions? What mattered for Ambedkar was not living in denial and pauseless struggle for freedom from a new normal of lawlessness and the social pathology of rightlessnes. Neither normlessness (anomie) nor passive nihilism, which, as Nietzsche said, represents a situation of “devaluation of all values” provided an answer.
Babasaheb always urged that should we “wish to preserve the Constitution… let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path”. Even when “new ideologies” everywhere move people away from the “government of the people and by the people” and towards “governments for the people”, evils of untouchability persist, which should be effectively destroyed not by homeopathic doses but through a radical chemotherapy of the body politic.
Babasaheb was not merely the architect of the Indian Constitution but also remains a towering voice of its living Constitution. His vision has guided generations of appellate justices in interpreting both the legal and social meaning of the Constitution. He has been quoted in interpretation of fundamental rights and directive principles, and even in election and taxation situations. His most cited Constituent Assembly debate words are the “degradation of the political environment of the country”. The Supreme Court in the Bommai decision revived his famous observation that Article 356 (president’s rule in states) is and must remain a “dead letter”. He is all pervasive in social action litigation (still miscalled in India as “public interest litigation”), justifying the assertion that activist justices are the lineal descendants of Babasaheb.
The adoption of the Constitution may have, as Eleanor Zelliot reminds us, been greeted by “Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai” and he outlived the ultimate insult of being described as a “modern Manu” but Ambedkar’s legacies of justice as emancipation shall endure as aspects of collective memory and the histories he shaped.
The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor of the Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi
- See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/how-not-to-recall-ambedkar-2758030/#sthash.TYJ3AQe8.dpuf
Bhim Yatra .. so that there are no more killings
Rarely does Jantar-Mantar, the place in the heart of Delhi, gets ‘enlivened’ with people who share very similar type of tragedy - one should say man made tragedy. The culmination of 125 day Bhim Yatra - led by Safai Karmchari Aandolan - which had started from Dibrugarh in the North East on 10 th December and had traversed around 500 districts and 30 states, proved to be one such occasion. (13 th April 2016)
The big public meeting organised at Jantar Mantar, attended by hundreds of safai karmcharis from different parts of the country and many individuals, activists who are sympathetic to their cause, was just another way to celebrate Dr Ambedkar’s 125 th birth anniversary, a day earlier. Special focus of the Yatra was on deaths in sewers and septic tanks and the key slogan was ‘Stop Killing us in Dry Latrines, Sewers and Septic tanks’. In fact, most of the people who were sitting on the podium belonged to such families only, who had lost their near-dear ones in cleaning sewer or septic tanks
Sunayana ( age 9 years) who lives with her grandparents these days in Lucknow, had lost her father in similar ‘accident’ and her mother also died due to shock within few days of her father’s death. There was Rahul ( aged 13 years) from Tamil Nadu who had lost his father merely a week back and was inconsolable on stage also. Pinki ( aged 35 year) from Varanasi, a mother of two kids was one of the most articulate among those who had gathered there. She had lost her husband three years back and was emphatic that ‘we are not here for compensation.’ We are part of this caravan now and ‘want that nobody should face similar tragedies hereafter.’ Kartar ( Delhi) still could recount how his son was called by his contractor when a fellow worker had already died cleaning the sewer. According to him the contractor rather forced him to descend into the sewer and take out fellow workers body and in the process his son also inhaled poisonous gases and died on the spot.
Everybody had a heartrending story to tell. Many like Santosh just could not even utter a word as it was no narrating an experience but ‘reliving’ the whole episode and its aftermath.
A query rather resonated all these presentations: How long their sons/husbands will have to die cleaning other people’s waste and excreta in a country which boasts of sending satellites into space. How does one explain allotment of thousands of crores of Rs for drainage and sewerage work, so much money being spent on laying/relaying pipes and drains that are designed to kill? Is it because ours is a society where Varna mind-set still dominates, and that’s why a human friendly system of garbage and sewage management has still not been conceived as planners rely on ‘expendable dalit labour’.
Charter of Demands - Bhim Yatra : Stop KILLING us
To tender an apology to the safai karamchari community for the historical injustice and centuries of humiliation heaped on us by engaging us as manual scavengers,
To eliminate manual scavenging immediately, without any further delay or postponement. We will not accept any more deadlines that were extended in the past, from time to time
Stop the deaths in sewer lines and septic tanks at all costs. Modernize and mechanize the sanitation system and do whatever it takes to stop killing people in sewer work
Pay Rs. 10 lakhs as mandated by the SC order, to dependants of those who have died in sewer lines since 1993 without any hassles or hesitation
Enhance the one time cash payment given as immediate relief to liberated manual scavengers from Rs. 40,000 to Rs. Three lakhs.
Interestingly it was only last month that a member of Parliament from Upper House during zero hour session said that there ‘ there are more than 22,000 deaths every year while cleaning sewers in different parts of the country ‘as per the records of National Commission of Safai Karmacharis’(34. http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/high-death-rate-among-scavengers-while-on-duty-bjp-mp/article8331909.ece) One does not know how the NCSK has got these figures but it is interesting to note that the figures quoted by the honourable member of the ruling party exactly matched the details of a story in a magazine which had appeared nine years back. The said story titled “Life Inside a Black Hole,” discussed how “Beneath the glitter of India are dark alleys in which are trapped poisonous gases and millions of Dalits who do our dirty job in return for disease and untouchability.” According to the author Siriyan Anand,
At least 22,327 Dalits of a sub-community die doing sanitation work every year. Safai Kamgar Vikas Sangh, a body representing sanitation workers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), sought data under the Right to Information Act in 2006, and found that 288 workers had died in 2004–05, 316 in 2003–04, and 320 in 2002– 03, in just 14 of the 24 wards of the BMC. About 25 deaths every month. These fi gures do not include civic hospital workers, gutter cleaners or sanitation workers on contract. Compare this with the 5,100 soldiers—army, police, paramilitaries—who have died between 1990 and 2007 combating militancy in Jammu and Kashmir ( Anand, Siriyavan (2007) : "Life Inside a Black Hole," Tehelka, Vol 4, No 44, http://archive.tehelka.com/story_main36.asp?filename=Neo81207LIFE_INSIDE.asp,accessed on 18 Feb 2015).
Not that there have not been legislative actions or policy interventions to stop these killings but the impact has been symbolic. It was the year 2014 when Supreme Court passed a historic judgement and also asked the all the State Governments and the Union Territories to fully implement the 2013 act, prevent deaths in sewer holes and grant compensation of Rs 10 lakh to families of all persons who have died in manholes. A study by Safai Karmchari Aandolan reveals that only in 3 % cases families of victims received the promised compensation.
So many avoidable deaths cleaning sewers/septic tanks here can create an impression that deaths in sewers is a common phenomenon everywhere? Definitely not. An occupational health physician Ashish Mittal’s study on Sewer Workers ( Hole to Hell, 2005) had in fact compared situation here with situation in most developed nations? It explained
‘[m]anhole workers there are protected in bunny suits to avoid contact with contaminated water and sport a respiratory apparatus; the sewers are well-lit, mechanically aerated with huge fans and therefore are not so oxygen deficient. In Hong Kong, a sewer worker, after adequate training, needs at least 15 licences and permits to enter a manhole.’
Addressing the gathering at Jantar Mantar, Bejwada Wilson, who is a leading activist of the ‘Safai Karmachari Aandolan’ narrated an experience from Ahmedabad leg of this tour. During meeting in one of the bastis of safai karamcharis he met a young boy who told him that he wants to become a doctor. When the boy was prodded further, it was discovered that his father had died because of poisonous gases inside the sewer, and could have been saved had he received medical attention in time. The boy was emphatic ‘ If I become a doctor, then I can at least ensure that such people can receive immediate medical treatment’.
It is very positive sign that there are voices of fresh rumblings within the historically despised and stigmatised 'scavenging' communities and a large section of the younger ones of the community are getting ready to come out of broom and human waste.
To conclude, the Bhim Yatra with the key slogan of ‘Stop Killing Us in Dry Latrines, Sewers and Septic Tanks’ has come at a very inopportune time as far as the trumpetting which is being witnessed around Swacch Bharat Abhiyan.
One learns that the government wants to send across a very positive image of its flagship programme. Apart from directing different governments to retake the pledge which was administered to them at the launch of the campaign and imposing a Swacch Bharat cess of 0.5 % on all services liable for service tax, a proposal is also under consideration wherein the private companies and PSUs would be asked to spend around 30 % of CSR funds on this initiative.
But as it is evident all the glitter and glow would not be able to hide the penetrating questions being raised or the devastating criticism it is being subjected to. All the claims of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan notwithstanding , it will have to answer the simple query raised by Bhim Yatra that manual scavengers are still being 'killed' in dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks and for them how fictitious all these promises of 'Clean India' look.
Hundreds of manual scavengersfrom across the country have taken a break from work, determined never to go back to the degrading work. At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, those who are termed as voiceless are engaging in relentless sloganeering and drumbeating to mark the birth anniversary of one of the most iconic figure of India, a person who fought for the rights of the Dalits throughout his life, Dr BR Ambedkar.
Meters away from the spot, others are staring at them with a strange look, wondering what these people are up to. A passersby inquired from TEHELKA about their protest. On being told the protestors are the people who clean toilets but aspire for a better life, the response was, “Who will clean up the latrines if not them? It’s their job.” This reply reflects the rigidity of the caste system and its deep entrenchment in the mind of a common Indian.
Manual scavenging as a practice was abolished in the year 1993 by an Act ofParliament. However, the shameful practice continues even today despite enactment of a new law in the year 2013 with harsher punishment, called the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013.
If one goes by the socioeconomic census of 2011, about 180,657 households are still working as manual scavengers in the country and 796,000 cases of still exist. The International Labour Organisation describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:
(1) Removal of human excrement from public streets and ‘dry latrines’ (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal)
(2) Cleaning septic tanks.
(3) Cleaning gutters and sewers.
A deadline was envisaged for the implementation of the enacted law against manual scavenging. However, so far it has hardly been implemented, which is obvious from the fact that there are hardly any prosecutions in these cases. Most parts of middle-class India do not even know that engaging someone in this job is a crime. This is the backdrop why an educated youngster can give the kind of reply mentioned above.
The practice is rampant despite stringent laws being in place. The most common sight of such scavengers are railways station where men can be seen cleaning up human excreta assembled on the railway tracks.
The gravity of the matter even forced the apex court of the country to reprimand the state governments many a times for their failure to implement anti-scavenging laws. According the court, there were 9.6 million dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed. However, the government and social organisations differ on this data.
But the problem of these scavengers is just not about their dignity, there are many health hazards attached with this work, which at times lead to their deaths. According to Bezwada Wilson, who has been working with the scavengersfor long, since he formed the ska, no less than 1,200 people have died during the process of cleansing gutters. The primary demand of these agitators is that death due to scavenging work should be recognised as homicide.
Among their demands are that dry latrines should be abolished completely. The government should document deaths during scavenging; there should be modernisation of sewer tanks throughout the country; as per Supreme Courtorder, 10 lakh be paid immediately to those who died and many others, including creating a national fund for those who died in the process of cleaning sewers.
Wilson has just completed 125 days of Bhim Yatra, that involved travelling to different parts of India to create awareness and mobilise people against this inhumane practice. He claims that he has written to all the concerned ministries about their demands but there has hardly been any response yet.
Amidst this tragedy that has been unfolding for a long time now, the much fanfarecreated around the Swachh Bharat Mission appears to be a sham as it has not yielded much results in the past two years, claim these protestors and activists. The SBM mission plans to construct 12 crore toilets in rural India by October 2019, costing around Rs 1.96 crore.
Suman, one of those present at the meeting told TEHELKA, if the government is really sincere about its Swachh Bharat Mission, it should immediately meet all our demands and rehabilitate us.
Another protestor, pointing out at the ‘hypocrisy’ of the government said, “Everyone is talking about Ambedkar these days, but have they ever understood what Ambedkar wanted? If they had, they would have been the first ones to prevent us from doing what we do. This is so inhumane and barbaric. We cannot sit and have food with others. I am surprised how come you are shaking hands with me: it happens only once in a while that people are ready to touch us. Everyone is ready to appropriate Ambedkar for political benefits and for our votes but hardly anyone is willing to do away with the practices Ambedkar fought against.”
The protest culminated with burning of baskets, symbolic of those in which human excreta is carried by these women. The ball is now in the government’s court: It has to respond if it is really sincere in implementing values or ideas propagated by Ambedkar. Otherwise that great visionary will be reduced to a symbol of vote-bank politics. The government also needs to realise that Swachh Bharat can only be successful if manual scavenging is eliminated and replaced with modern toilets.
TIMES OF INDIA
14 Apr 16
The Times of India
Over 1300 manual scavengers died at work: Safai Karmachari Andolan
Subodh Varma | TNN | Apr 14, 2016, 04.28 PM IST
In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the government to take swift measures to end manual scavenging. (Representative image)
NEW DELHI: On the eve of Dr Ambedkar's 125th anniversary, a band of young men and women drove into the national capital after a long bus journey lasting 125 days crisscrossing nearly 500 districts across the country. The group is made up of manual scavengers and their children and they were on a macabre mission "Stop Killing Us". They want strong measures to end manual scavenging which, besides being an inhuman relic of the past, has taken over 1327 lives in the past couple of years.
Led by the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), the travelers are highlighting what is unconstitutional, illegal, and yet still practiced in India - manual scavenging, that is, cleaning of toilets and septic tanks by manual workers, who belong to one of the most oppressed scheduled castes in India.
Although specifically banned by a law passed in 2003 manual scavenging continues with Census 2011 estimating that nearly 8 lakh people were involved in it. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the government to take swift measures to end the system.
SKA alleges that despite the apex court's strict directions, things have not changed and over 1300 people have died in septic tanks or sewers while doing this job. Cleaning septic tanks requires descending into the tank filled with noxious gases, with no protective gear. Often the worker has to completely submerge in the full tank to ensure clearance.
Bezwada Wilson of the SKA said that mainstream political parties are vying with each other to appropriate Dr Ambedkar's legacy.
"Unless they recognize that the deaths that occur in sewer and septic tanks are not accidents but political murder we do not think they have the right to project themselves as defenders of the rights of Dalits and highly marginalized communities such as manual scavengers," he said.
The 3000 km long journey, dubbed Bhim Yatra, was undertaken to meet manual scavengers, other sanitation workers and their families in various parts of the country, record their grievances and motivate them to reject this practice.
At a public hearing held at Jantar Mantar, several workers spoke of their experiences and tragedies. Kapil from Ghaziabad said that five male family members including his fathers who were engaged as manual scavengers died in 2003 while cleaning a septic tank.
"I have been to all 30 states in the last 125 days and manual scavenging and sewer deaths exist everywhere" said Mohana Priya, another Bhim Yatri.
Several eminent jurists, social activists, academics, writers and scientists including Justice VN Khare (former Chief Justice of India), Romila Thapar (Historian),Prof PM Bhargava (senior scientist), Justice Prabha Sridevan (former judge), N Yugandhar (retd IAS),KR Venugopal (retd IAS), Justice AP Shah (former judge), Justice Rajinder Sachar (former judge), and others have extended support to the movement