That was on January 27, 1948, three days before he was assassinated. Gandhiji said in his prayer meeting that evening that 'Harijans live surrounded by filth and dirt. The administration is our own. How can we allow this disgraceful situation to continue?'
And here is how we have allowed it to continue till date -- unashamedly through all of 60 years of our Independence. Read on.
For as long as 12 years after Gandhiji's death, the scavengers received no notice by anyone leading India's tryst with destiny. The then Union home minister Govind Ballabh Pant was first to declare in Parliament in 1960 that he was 'very anxious to see the inhuman practice of night soil being carried on head abolished completely and immediately.'
He set up a Scavenging Conditions Inquiry Committee, which reported to Parliament on December 26, 1960, that 'the conditions of scavenging in almost all places were so nauseating that a few of the members in spite of having become accustomed to visiting the filthiest spots in towns, had been vomiting. A few of the towns in the country were so filthy that they could as well be called 'Big Latrines'.' But little was actually done.
In 1993, then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines [Prohibition] Act 1993, described at the time as 'a path-breaking legislation'. Yet, the notification bringing the Act into force was not issued for another four years, until January 26, 1997.
Meanwhile a National Commission on Safai Karamcharis had been appointed in 1995 by Sitaram Kesri, the then minister for social welfare. That commission reported: Safai Karamcharis in this country have not benefited from the spectacular progress all round. Manual scavenging is still prevalent in large parts of the country and they continue to be oppressed, discriminated and subjected to indignity. They live in subhuman conditions in segregated colonies by the side of open drains and public latrines, deprived of basic amenities of drainage, water, public conveniences and bare sanitation. The sanitary workers are made to live in most insanitary conditions, ironical though it sounds.
Filthy living conditions have not only a physical bearing but also social. Scavenging is regarded as 'defiling.' Our social order is divided between those who defile and those who are defiled by the act of cleaning our shit.
Among the unclean or defiling occupations as they are categorised by the welfare ministry, some 7.23 lakh persons have been identified as scavengers. There are about 5 lakh workers engaged in another major defiling occupation -- leather work, particularly in the removal of carcass -- the dead body of an animal. Untouchability is thus embedded on their person. No wonder not one of them has ever been invited to an 'At Home' by any Rashtrapati in the past 60 years.
In 2000, then finance minister Yashwant Sinha made a provision for removal of night soil 'in a mission mode within one year.' As in the past, end of story. Interestingly, Sinha also provided in the same Budget (2001-2002) some relief for those who he said 'live in a harsh and cruel world' by enlarging the concessions to the entertainment industry. 'Our entertainment industry, particularly the film industry not only provides the much needed fantasy to millions of our people who live in an otherwise harsh and cruel world, it has also emerged as an important segment of our economy and holds great promise for the future.'
Although his budgetary mission mode failed to touch nightsoil, the daydreaming films and fantasy have continued to flourish such as to be able to entertain us. Aaja nachle.
Let us return to the fate of the scavengers. On August 22, 2007, the public accounts committee reported to the Lok Sabha on the progress of the National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of scavengers and their dependents. The verdict: the scheme had failed to deliver its social vision after ten years of continuous but regrettably half-hearted efforts.
The National Action Plan for total eradication of manual scavenging by 2007 had also been prepared by the Planning Commission, and the ministry of urban employment and poverty alleviation and the central government have accorded 'highest priority' for rehabilitation of manual scavengers by including it as one of the items in the 'thrust areas' of the ministry of social justice and empowerment.
But the committee regretted that it was not given any information relating to targets set and achievements made during each of the years since 2002, in respect of the number of manual scavengers who were liberated and rehabilitated. In the absence of any meaningful feedback, the committee cannot but conclude that much progress has not been made.
The committee 'deplores the callous attitude displayed by the ministry in not furnishing the requisite information to the committee which is anything but regrettable'. It urged the central and state governments to implement the schemes envisaged for the benefit of scavengers in letter and spirit. More than three months have passed since the committee submitted its report. No one in authority has moved an inch; nor have any of the over 800 MPs who have secured a lifetime pension for themselves, been moved by the shocking revelations.
One prays that a day comes when the mighty of this land would spare at least a fraction of the tenacity they have bestowed on propelling the 123 Agreement, so that we may also move an inch forward on serial numbers 4 or 5 or 6, that is, the liberation of scavengers from filth enjoined upon us by Gandhiji in his haunting message on January 27, 1948: How can we allow this disgraceful situation to continue?