New Delhi: As the temple vs toilet debate refuses to die, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who no longer holds the sanitation portfolio, is using every opportunity to push the case for more toilets to end open defaecation, eradication of the pernicious practice of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.
"Self help groups comprising of women liberated from the heinous practice of manual scavenging will get loans at 3 per cent rate of interest and those that repay on time will get loans at zero per cent rate of interest," said Ramesh at a national workshop for rehabilitation of persons engaged in manual scavenging and other un-hygienic conditions.
The Minister also said that he had written to all the state governments to give priority to those engaged in manual scavenging while allocating houses sanctioned under the Centre's Indira Awas Yojana. He said that some of the 30,00,000 households could be "reserved" for manual scavengers. The ministry is leveraging the National Rural Livelihoods Mission to launch pilot projects in twelve districts in the six states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
A bill prohibiting employment of manual scavengers was passed in 1993. But the law failed to have any impact. Not even a single case was registered against offenders in the two decades that followed. In 2013, Parliament replaced this law with a new one, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012. The then minister for Social Empowerment and Justice, Mukul Wasnik, admitted that the biggest hurdle in eradicating manual scavenging was lack of information.
Infact, there has been a systemic subversion of the law that was enacted more than five decades after independence. While all state governments have claimed that they have eradicated manual scavenging, the 2011 census revealed that there were 24,00,000 dry toilets. This means that anywhere between two and five lakh families could be engaged in a practice that is banned by law. Worse, as Ramesh pointed out, Indian Railways is the largest open defaecation system.
At the workshop activists of the Bezewada Wilson led Safai Karmachari Andolan demanded that the government should give them a time frame for implementation and, just as in the case of bonded labour, individuals who have broken free from the practice of manual scavenging should also get a one time grant.
The government's renewed focus also comes as the Congress is struggling to make inroads into the Dalit constituency. For it the BSP, and even new player AAP in Delhi, pose a serious threat by usurping its traditional constituency.
So why should the new law work? And should it be called, as Rahul Gandhi has termed it, the Right to Dignity Act?
CNN-IBN's Rupashree Nanda caught up with Rural Development Minister, Jairam Ramesh and Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Kumari Selja. Here is an excerpt of the interview:
CNN-IBN: We had an abolition of manual scavenging bill in 1993 also. Not a single case was registered then. So why do you feel with the new bill there will be any change?
Kumari Selja: We have made it more stringent. We have imposed improsinment, fine and we have fixed responsibility this time. We have seen what you just said, there were major weaknesses after 1993 Act. I am sure that this will definitely be more effective and we will be able to eradicate this scourge.
CNN-IBN: Mr Rahul Gandhi has said that we perhaps do not name our laws very correctly and he's said that it should be the Right to Dignity Bill. How do you respond to that and what has your ministry done in order to make this a reality.
Jairam Ramesh: No, no. It is a Right to Dignity Bill. I think it is not a bill, it is the Right to Dignity Act. It is an Act designed to give dignity to the most oppressed sections of our society which has been sanctified by our caste system. There is a very intimate link between our caste system and manual scavenging which unfortunately prevails in many parts of the country even today.