Kudos to the Tamil Nadu government for its notification making it clear that no one can engage human beings “for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank” from Sunday. Hitherto the vignette of a man in loin cloth, emerging from a manhole soaked in sewage from head to toe was a recurring paradox, seen in the context of the state banning manual scavenging in 2013 and even abolishing dry latrines. Horrified at the regular sight of men doing the degrading job of physically entering cesspools and sewers, many wondered what the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act was all about. Enquiries with authorities of local bodies, whose engineers are normally seen supervising the drainage clearing operations, about engaging people for the job always elicited the evasive reply that the contractors entrusted with the task are employing the men.
Perhaps to clear that ambiguity the latest gazette notification says: “no person, local authority or any agency shall, engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person...” In fact, the notification says the order has been issued only under the 2013 Act prohibiting manual scavenging. Even if that the order came after the Madras High Court ordered notice on a PIL seeking direction to the authorities to implement the ban on manual scavenging, it is a welcome move. But it still leaves a nagging question in the minds of many: Are our local bodies prepared to implement the ban? To put it otherwise, have they all acquired machinery to clear clogged drains and sewers?
Maybe big corporations and some municipalities have the facilities, but what about cash-strapped panchayats? Whatever may be the case, the government should put pressure on local bodies to equip themselves to keep their villages, towns and cities clean without manual scavenging. Under no circumstances should the practice of using human beings be allowed to continue. Also, as per the act, district-level vigilance committees should be formed to monitor its implementation in toto.