The first step of solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one—it is a trite precept, but like all trite precepts, there are elements of folk wisdom to it. But, after having failed to curb manual scavenging 25 years after it was banned, what did states do? They resorted to gross under-reporting of the number of manual scavengers in their jurisdictions, with some even denying outright the existence of a single manual scavenger. States, as per The Indian Express, have denied the existence of more than half of the people identified as manual scavengers in a central government survey, at the verification stage. While 54,929 individuals had identified themselves as being in the outlawed profession—one that exposes the horrors of India’s oppressive caste system—states have validated the inclusion of just 25,015.
Bihar, Haryana and Telangana—where 846, 1,221, and 288 individuals, respectively, from select districts where the exercise is being conducted, had reported being in the banned profession—have flatly refused having even a single such individual. Many states have trimmed their respective lists drastically—Madhya Pradesh, for instance, left only 30% of the original names on its list. Only Maharashtra has validated its full list. Such ostrich-like conduct by the states ensures that the dehumanising practice that has survived even after being banned two and half decades ago will not be eradicated any time soon. It breathes new life into caste-based oppression in the hinterland.
The problem becomes more serious if the fact that the survey is being conducted only for just over a fourth of India’s districts and excludes the more hazardous avatars of manual scavenging, such as sewer and septic tank cleaning, is taken into account. States can’t close their eyes and wish away manual scavengers. They need to act fast on mechanised clearing of human waste and rehabilitating existing manual scavengers.