The proposed blanket ban on manual scavenging, backed by strong penal provisions, leaves a big question mark on the country’s biggest open toilet — railway tracks.
The task of coping with a ban on manual cleaning of 1.15 lakh km of rail tracks criss-crossing the country raised concerns in the railway ministry which sought an exemption from the proposed law. The social justice ministry, however, said the activity of manual scavenging had to be barred, be it private households or railway tracks.
The Cabinet on Thursday passed the Bill that seeks to penalize manual scavenging and unsafe cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The census figures show 26 lakh insanitary latrines while rail tracks compound the problem manifold.
The proposed law would give nine months to make the transition from the present system of dry latrines and manual cleaning to sanitary disposal of human waste. The law is at least a year away as it is to be vetted by a parliamentary committee, but the idea of no-manual-scavenging raises hackles in a country where the practice continues despite being banned by a 1993 law.
The new law sounds like an ultimatum: end manual scavenging or face penal provisions.
“Unless the authorities are told there is no option, the practice would continue. If we say it cannot be done, the authorities have to find out how to ensure compliance of the law,” a Cabinet minister argued defending the transition from the “gradual” approach of the past to a radical zero tolerance.
But a strong “stakeholder” like railways believes the law may not be practical given the mammoth task at hand. Ahead of the Bill being cleared by the Cabinet, railways sought exemption for tracks, arguing this came under “safety and maintenance” functions.
Ministry of social justice headed by Mukul Wasnik, however, rejected the railways’ plea on the ground that making such exception would take the sting out of the law as defecation along rail tracks is the biggest trigger for manual scavenging. “For example, if 10,000 manual scavengers are allowed for rail tracks, then the law kicks in as a non-starter,” argued an official.
Sanitation and drinking water minister Jairam Ramesh, too, has pledged funds to help creation of new regime, both in railways and in villages, to eliminate manual cleaning.