Savanur and Manual Scavengers: Another loud cry for social justice

On July 20th Deccan Herald ran a disturbing news item. Manual scavengers from the Bhangi caste in Savanur had covered themselves with human excreta to protest their impending eviction and a denial of water by the Town Municipal Corporation (TMC). There were other similar reports in the Kannada press (both print and electronic). The back-story to the incident is incomplete in media reports. This write-up is an effort to document the facts surrounding the protest.

Savanur was ruled by Nawab Abdul Majid Khan II till Indian independence. Eight decades ago, the Nawab had granted land to the Bhangi community on which they could build their houses. On this land are four houses which make up the homes of seven Bhangi families. From the days of the Nawab these families have been working as manual scavengers in the town of Savanur. This land is now prime property in Savanur.

The TMC passed a resolution that transferred property granted by the Nawab into the hands of the Town Municipal Corporation. The resolution in-turn was used to declare that a “commercial complex” would come up at the site of these Bhangi homes.

The community made several requests to the authorities to stop their eviction. The TMC had by this time made their intentions of grabbing the land clear. Government officers gave a token assurance that the families would be moved to homes in other locations under the “Ashraya” scheme. This was nothing more than a way to rationalize their eviction.

On July 17th 2010, their common water connection was disconnected. The TMC claims it was for non-payment of dues and an illegal connection. Neighbours denied them the use of street taps and forced them to collect water from drain water around the public taps. In response to a complaint filed on 19th of July 2010, the Assistant Commissioner demanded that the families pay a fine of 2000Rs to have the water reconnected. Such a demand scoffs at both their economic status and their nature of work (manual scavenging).

On July 20th 2010, the community out of desperation protested by smearing themselves with human excrement. Once their protests reached the news wires, the TMC official promptly provided independent connections to each of their homes.

Why was it disconnected in the first place? The Departments of Municipal Administration (DMA) has been mandated to allocate 22.75% of ALL grants for the welfare of Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe citizens. Explicitly mentioned within this scheme are funds that are to be allocated for providing drinking water connections [source]. The fact that they were isolated and targeted proves that it was an intimidatory tactic to force eviction. The scapegoat for the incident is the Chief Officer who happens to be a Dalit. He will be transferred for following orders.

To make matters worse another ugly layer to the problem is that children are being sucked into the caste labour of manual scavenging. A 13 year old boy has taken to manual scavenging after his father’s deteriorating health forced him to stop the caste labour. The Child Rights commission is making a suo-motto intervention but their track record makes us fear that the case will end up being diluted.

What the families were put through was shocking and inhuman. The general silence from the civil society to such apartheid by the state government and elected officials was worrying. A blatant land-grab from the most oppressed of people demanded a far stronger response. While most of us slept over the issue, certain religious institutions used it as an opportunity to declare their concern and adopt the children of these homes. Yes…adopt…heaping more insult to their injury. Pramod Muthalik of the Ram Sene made a visit to the homes. The Kannada daily Prajavani titled his entry “Graha Pravesha” (house warming).

Incidents like those in Savanur are not isolated. We need to begin joining the dots on forms and practices of untouchability, it’s beneficiaries and how it’s being used politically. The families in Savanur are the visible tip of the iceberg. Media reports suggest that up to 80% of the villages around Savanur have dabi and pit latrines which need to be cleared by manual scavengers. The situation is no different in many parts of the country.

The denial of water and the attempt to evict these Bhangi families was a deliberate and systematic attempt to grab their land. The town municipality, District and Taluk administration are all parties to this incident.  We leave you with two questions. What is your response? What do you suggest should be done?

Citizens against UID

PUCL has endorsed the Citizen’s Statement on UID

We, representatives of people’ movements, mass organizations, institutions and concerned individuals including all the undersigned strongly oppose the potential tracking and profiling based techno-governance tools such as the Unique Identification number (UID) by the Government of India and the manner in which legitimate democratic processes have been undermined through this.

The proposed UID project seems to be perched on an anti-people perspective and violates a number of basic rights guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution of India including Articles 14, 15, 17, 19 and 21 viz., the Rights to equality, dignity, privacy, expression and the right not to be discriminated against, The project seems to be aimed at profiling people by pooling in biometric and retinal data pertaining to an individual and could be potentially discriminatory in a country where caste identity is the most predominant socio-political marker. Further, it is a travesty on the dignity and privacy of individuals. At another level, given the fact that more than one third of our population live below the substantial level called “poverty line” and without literacy & numeracy, a large section of our population would find itself unable to handle this number in a meaningful way and thus face the danger of virtually stripped of their citizenship and thereby the very legitimacy of their existence on the land of this country.

This project which has been launched at a budgeted cost of INR 1900 Crores for the year 2010-2011 in a country where the Government has officially declared that 400 million of its citizens are living below poverty line is , thus an insult to the dignity of the Peoples of India. The project headed by a person of the rank of the Union Cabinet Minister, whose appointment was not transparent and a staff overhead of more than 100 is also working under the most non-transparent processes and we fear that the decisions are made and influenced by vested private and corporate interests who have had a record of anti-people and anti-democratic activities. There is no wide public discussion on the feasibility or desirability of the project.

It is in this context that we have serious objections to the way the decadal census process is being used to pitch the UID process and no discussion on this has happened in any of the democratic forums including the Parliament, which also transgresses n the right to dignity and privacy of individuals and their choice to opt out of the UID process. If the UID continues to be tagged with the Census process – we would also consider boycotting the same. It is a matter of great concern that the powers that be have deliberately kept silent on the inter linkage between the UID and current mode of census

In this situation it is not clear which decisions are being made by the private sector or by the elected representatives. There are proposals within this project that will result in changes to the PDS, food subsidy, MGNREGS etc are being put forward by the Planning commission and UIDAI. They suggest that instead of food grains, cash subsidies must be given to beneficiaries which can be encashed at public or private sector shops.

In the past the changes in policy were achieved through influence and lobbying, but now entrepreneurs have been appointed as non-politicians with cabinet rank. While the project was hailed as a “gamechanger” and a welfare measure, the public at large have expressed growing concerns about the UID and its implications for ordinary citizens. Many questions are being raised about the nature, status and aims of the scheme. Countries such as the UK, Australia and the USA have found similar measures unworkable due to the serious probability of abuse and the strong opposition of the public. There is a huge expenditure proposed for the UID. The UID would affect every citizen. We as groups and individuals feel the need to engage the larger public in an open discussion about the UID and its proposed scope, implementation, benefits and risks. We are also mobilising public opinion on issues and concerns about the UID.
We the undersigned demand that

  • the UID project be scrapped with immediate effect
  • all the transactions undertaken by the UIDAI project be scrutinized by an accountable public body from the democratic governance structure in a transparent manner taking into consideration the concerns of the all the peoples before venturing into the implementation stage
  • the financial and technological implications and the costs incurred so far, including details of contracts entered into with respect to the UID project be made transparent
  • the Census and UID project be forthwith de-linked

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