Despite a law against physically removing human excrement from dry latrines, and the fact that state-level politicians across the country continue to deny the existence of so-called “manual scavenging" in India, hundreds of thousands of households still rely on dry latrines, according to Census 2011.

On United Nations Human Rights Day, the organisation PACS (Poorest Areas Civil Society) of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) launched an exhibition, Breaking Margins, on the continuing practice of manual scavenging in India. The exhibition runs until 22 December.

PACS director Rajan Khosla spoke in an interview about the difficulties of implementing an effective ban on a practice that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called one of the darkest blots on India’s development process. Edited excerpts:

Why has the issue of manual scavenging still not been addressed effectively by the government, when the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993?

The issue of manual scavenging has been prominent since Independence. In 1993, a law was enacted and the efforts went on. Unfortunately, since 1993, after 20 years, not a single person has been convicted and prosecuted under it. You will not find any disagreement between the government, civil society and the media or any stakeholder, who says that the practice should be still there. But still it is there. At the end of the day the problem is in implementation, the problem is in execution.

The second thing is that there is also denial. The Census of 2011 says that 1.3 million people are still engaged in manual scavenging, but there are a lot of reports from the states coming in denying that. The fact also remains that there are civil society groups which claim that 1.3 million is a very, very conservative estimate and the number will shoot up because of Indian railway employees, who are also manual scavengers. Indian railways is the largest violator or offender, so to say, because the railways do not have flush toilets.

Who is advocating on behalf of the scavengers themselves?

These groups are invisible, they get up early in the morning, they avoid people. When we interact with some of them, just talking to you will make them shiver. People treat them as polluted, there is a concept of purity very closely attached to it. They walk in the shadow, they are not a power group, they cannot ask for or fight for their rights and entitlements. And today, when the government is talking about inclusion in such a big way, this is the time on Human Rights Day to bring the issues to the forefront.

Why have some of the government’s rights-based programmes, for which PACS works to improve access and inclusivity, not had the desired impact?

This is not just about violating a law, it’s about attitude, it’s about mindset, it’s about caste. We start from there. We need a strong political will, we need a strong understanding in civil society and we need to bring different players on board. Enacting a law and strong political will are two different things. The government has to say, ‘Now this is the end’.

How do we execute this law? What are the powers and the roles of the different strata? For example, the district collectors are supposed to be in charge of rehabilitation (of the workers) but what happens if they are not doing that job? We have to set up accountability at the lowest rung.

The Total Sanitation Campaign has allocated I think 15,000 crore for the construction of flush toilets, those things are being taken up but it’s not purely a health issue. (Rural development minister) Jairam Ramesh has been one of the champions of this issue, he is personally committed to the cause. He also announced that under NRLM (National Rural Livelihoods Mission), self-help groups will give space to women who are engaged in scavenging for rehabilitation. But one or two great leaders cannot just push this.

There is another Bill currently pending in Parliament. What is the difference between this and the 1993 Act?

The new Bill, which is pending in Parliament, is more progressive. It makes the punishment (for owning a dry toilet) more stringent.

The old punishment was a small fine but the new punishment talks about 50,000 and one year imprisonment. But the bill has certain provisions where the district collector is responsible for the rehabilitation plan and a stipend provided during the rehabilitation period, and that’s fine, but the question is what happens if that does not take place. Who is to be held responsible?

What are the alternative employment possibilities open to someone who retires from manual scavenging and how will the proposed rehabilitation programmes help them find other work?

A person who engages in manual scavenging does 20-25 different types of work as well as cleaning toilets, cleaning dead animals, marriage sites, taking away leftover food. Economically, there are 20 other menial jobs which they can do. The attitude is that this person, by virtue of the fact that he is born in this family, is supposed to do scavenging. In one case, a person with a BA in commerce, a graduate, is being told to be a sweeper full time.

So the law has to come from two perspectives. One, we make the flush toilet mandatory, but secondly it has to be in a targeted mode. Once the census is done, we know where these people are engaged. We know where they are.

How can the new Bill, if passed, finally be implemented?

The involvement of local panchayat bodies is important, the involvement of civil society is a must. Take the example of polio. What made the eradication a success? There was a strong push, there was strong political will. We have the mechanism, we have the system. If every state declares that in one year we are going to abolish the practice and rehabilitate the people with dignity, it’s possible. The problem is that the issue comes to the forefront and then it goes back, because the bill is pending but Parliament is busy with FDI (foreign direct investment). The priority has to be changed."