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Killing it softly over two decades: Agrima Bhasin

July 5, 2013

NCSK cartoon for Kafila

This is a guest post by AGRIMA BHASIN: No different from the caste hierarchy in India, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) enjoys a marginal status, at the bottom, in the power hierarchy of commissions. “Why,” asked Former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, “is it that the Commission for Safai Karamcharis is being subjected to the same discrimination as the safai karamcharis themselves? This is not something to be proud of.” He minced no words at the Conference of Welfare Ministers of States in 1996, to guilt the august gathering into recognising their culpability in deliberately weakening a competent commission.

It was in 1992 that then PM Narasimha Rao addressed a huge rally of workers to declare his government’s intention to form a commission for safai karamcharis. The NCSK was constituted in 1994 as an advisory body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) to supervise and evaluate implementation of rehabilitation schemes for ‘manual scavengers’. Today, the Commission is on the verge of a great fall. It is a temporary body, thriving on periodic, three-year extensions; and over the past decade, has been stripped off its statutory powers and made toothless.

In a letter dated 3 April 2013 from its parent Ministry, the tenures of the Commission’s current Members (in their third year) were to terminate on 30 June 2013. And the Commission, yet again, has been granted a temporary lease of life for three more years, till 2016.

A death foretold

“As an ‘advisory’ body, we have no decision-making powers. How do they expect us to function? It’s easy for them to judge from outside,” says Girender Nath, private secretary to a Member of the Commission, to counter the dominant perception of the Commission as defunct. He continues, “The Commission was sent to the gallows before it was even born. Which other country would do that?” Established under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) Act, 1993, it was prescribed prematurely that the Commission would cease to exist on March 31, 1997. Regrettably, this preceded any purposeful planning on 1) time-bound demolition of dry toilets, 2) identification and rehabilitation of ‘manual scavengers’, and 3) support for their children.

After official promulgation of the Act in 1993, there was a year-and-a-half delay in the appointment of its Members. “We had decided to celebrate August 15, 1994, as Kala Divas (Black Day) since the Commission was not set up even a year after the NCSK Act was passed,” says Nath, re-living the frustration of the infant years of the Commission when they worked out of a one-room office in R. K. Puram, New Delhi. Disappointingly, the first batch of Members faced a truncated term of barely two years since the demise of the Commission, prescribed for 1997, loomed large. Thereafter, the NCSK Act was amended from time to time to grant an extended life of three years to the Commission. However, in 2004, this Act, which established the NCSK, was not renewed and hence dissolved. After its invalidation, the Commission was extended until 2007 (and later 2010) under a government notification. Its most recent tenure ended in March 2013.

A veiled affair

Appointments of Members to most commissions in India are opaque affairs. Who appoints who, on whose request, makes for a riveting and enduring game of guesswork. The criteria for appointment of Members (chairperson, vice-chairperson and five members), according to the NCSK Act, 1993, was that at least one Member be a woman and that all nominated Members should be ‘persons of eminence connected with socio-economic development and welfare of safai karamcharis’. While it is noteworthy that the four existing Members hail from Scheduled Caste (SC) backgrounds, their portfolio with the Commission is only one among the many portfolios and interests they pursue. The Commission, despairingly, is not the sole beneficiary of their attention. Nevertheless, the present Members know their work impressively well. They can talk extempore on the evils and exploitative nature of contract labour, the multitude of grievances that they attend to, the kind of measures required for meaningful rehabilitation and the brutal caste-discrimination ‘manual scavengers’ face. Lamentably, by the time each successive batch of Members develops a thorough understanding of the functioning of the Commission, their three-year tenure lapses.

“Those who appoint the Members should spare a thought for the fate of the Commission,” says an admin staff worker with regret. His underlying concern is that an opaque appointment procedure brushes aside invisible crusaders who have devoted their lives to eradicating manual scavenging and whose ‘eminence’ resonates in the hearts of the safai karamcharis they have touched in their lifetime.

Cast(e) aside

Staff workers, who have served the Commission since its inception, grieve over the gradual decline of the Commission. They anxiously hope that the Commission is reformed and that they are given work commensurate with their qualifications and potential. Many of them are overqualified for their routine jobs as admin workers. And Girender Nath (private secretary), who played an instrumental role in negotiating temporary job status for admin staff who began as daily wage peons, is himself a thesis short of possessing his LLM degree.

“Those in power, responsible for appointments, are non-dalits. And the admin staff and I, we come from low-caste, dalit families. Why would they want us to rise?” Nath says matter-of-factly, the hurt of discrimination concealed in his tone but evident in his eyes. “How many dalit IAS officers are there? Has a dalit ever occupied the post of Secretary, Government of India?” he asks, not expecting an answer. His pensive colleagues nod in agreement.

Caste bias and discrimination in the Commission and in the Indian bureaucracy “is rampant though not explicit,” says Nath. Subtle discrimination, however, has given way to undisguised discrimination on several occasions. In 2007, the Uttar Pradesh government stopped extending the due courtesies to Members of the Commission on official tours. Such an attitude is very “discouraging and humiliating,” says Hari Ram Sood, one of the current Members.

Restoring power

From inside their small, shared room at Lok Nayak Bhawan in Delhi, Nath and his immediate colleagues exercise incredible discretion and redefine their slim portfolios every day. Grievance letters that reach the Commission are read and forwarded, in the chain hierarchy, to Members higher up. “We pass on these letters everyday so that at least some action is taken,” says Nath, whose experience compels him to correct, inform and even disagree with Members and their personal staff. But beyond such discretion, his hands are tied.

“Be it cases of dalit atrocities, land grabs, violence against women or cases of dry toilet owners, I make many calls to concerned police personnel across states and regions. But the Commission does not have the power to summon the offenders,” explains Hari Ram Sood. He and the staff are keen that the NCSK be given powers akin to a civil court trying a suit, like the Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, such powers will prove ineffectual if granting extensions to the NCSK under government notifications remains the norm. Making the Commission a permanent body is the only way to cement its foundation. And permanence would not only mean job security for employees and administrative staff but it would also foster continuity that would enable its members to discharge their duties responsibly and expeditiously.

The employees also strongly feel that the ambit of the Commission’s responsibilities should be expanded beyond schemes and rehabilitation for ‘manual scavengers’ to encompass their overall welfare, from building their capacities, to considering cases of untouchability, harassment and atrocities. The NCSK, mandated by the NCSK Act 1993, to have seven Members, only has five. Of the five Members, one post, reserved for a woman member, remains vacant; no meaningful efforts have been made since 2010 to fill the position. Commissions like these require the services of competent and informed men and women who are able to work proactively and produce results, and in whom the safai karamchari community has confidence. Retired IAS officer P.S. Krishnan recommends a transparent procedure for selection through a multi-member panel (with the Prime Minster, leader of opposition and persons from Scheduled Caste community on board).

For a nation seeking to restore dignity to a section of the population forced by the caste system to clean human excreta for a living, such selection criteria, combined with the task of restoring credibility to the NCSK, merit urgent articulation as key recommendations in the new bill on manual scavenging (awaiting its fate in the Parliament).

Establishing a new commission is often the state’s immediate response to pressing concerns. This may be necessary in cases where none already exists. But where a commission does exist, constituting a new one is an unnecessary, time-wasting and bureaucratic exercise. It demonstrates a disturbing lack of will to restore credibility to existing institutions.

The Government of India, by strengthening and first preventing the fall of the Commission, can initiate in real earnest a process of healing for the community of ‘manual scavengers’. Such a step may also serve as a clarion call for the fortification of existing commissions.

(Agrima Bhasin is a researcher with the Centre for Equity Studies, a research think-tank. This piece was written as a part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012. A different version of it was previously published on infochangeindia.org/human-rights.)

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