As political parties scramble to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar on April 14 with an eye on votes, hundreds of manual scavengers and Ambedkar followers reached Delhi’s Jantar Mantar after a 125-day ‘Bhim Yatra’ across the country.
“Buckets full of muck on our heads and brooms aplenty, how do we to lift the tricolour, if our hands are not free?” recited Dev Kumar, a ‘safai karmachari’ and poet from Kanpur, taking a dig at the ongoing debate on “nationalism”.
The gathering included families of workers killed in septic tanks and sewers who are made to work without protective gear, exposed to noxious and lethal gases.
“These deaths are not accidents but political murder,” said Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor, Safai Karamchari Andolan, and organiser of the Yatra, which drew support from eminent citizens and jurists, such as V.N. Khare, Prabha Sridevan, A.P. Shah, Rajinder Sachar, Indira Jaising among others.
Between March 2014 and March 2016, there were 1,268 reported instances of death in sewer cleaning. “These are only the reported deaths. In just one day in March 2016, there was a report of four persons - Sunil Valmiki, Ricky Valmiki, SumitChauhan and BalyaMasade - dying, and one more person - PramodChauhan - being in a critical condition after they inhaled poisonous gas while cleaning a blocked sewer near Nagpur,” said Wilson, adding that these deaths were entered in police records as “accidental".
A Yatra team also handed over a memo to the Prime Minister and the Delhi government demanding immediate stop to manual scavenging and implementation of the apex court’s order to pay Rs 10 lakh compensation for each such death.
At a time when the Centre is pushing Digital India, the Dalit workers wanted to know why the government can’t modernise and mechanise the sanitation system? “Why, indeed, cannot technology be prioritised in the cleaning of toilets and sewers?”, they said, adding that the very existence of manual scavenging after over 60 years of Independence was an “insult” to Ambedkar and to the Constitution.
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