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India: Scavenging

Volume 793: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they are making to the government of India about the continuance of manual scavenging.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are not presently making representations to the Government of India on manual scavenging. The Department for International Development has been working to eradicate the abhorrent practice for many years. Advocacy organisations that have received DfID support have helped to strengthen the manual scavenging Act 2013, and DfID’s urban work is supporting sustainable, safe and clean cities for all. The UK is exploring the possibility of further work to eradicate manual scavenging.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The Government of India have indeed passed the manual scavenging Act 2013, but still 800,000 Dalits—the former “Untouchables”—are trapped in this degrading occupation and far too many deaths occur among them. Since January 2017, for example, there has been one death every five days among those cleaning out the public sewers by hand because of the toxic fumes. So will Her Majesty’s Government encourage the Indian Government, first, to implement the law that they have passed and, secondly, to devote some of the vast resources and technical ingenuity shown, for example, in the space programme to developing mechanised methods of cleaning out the public sewers?

The noble and right reverend Lord is absolutely right to raise the importance of this issue. It is inextricably linked to the caste system in India, and we have made consistent representations about the treatment of minorities. We believe that the manual scavenging Act, which provides for compensation, as well as education and retraining to help people into better jobs, is the right way forward and that it should be upheld. We will continue to work for that across all the areas in which we are involved in the Indian subcontinent.

My Lords, I am slightly disappointed by the Minister’s response because this is one area where we should be making strong representations and advocacy. We have the 2013 Act and the 2014 decision of the Supreme Court setting levels of compensation, yet every five days someone is killed in these terrible conditions. Surely that is a strong basis on which to make representations to the Indian authorities about this appalling situation.

I do not want to give the impression that we are passive on this. We recognise that it is outrageous that this practice still happens in a civilised country such as India. That is why we funded some of the advocacy groups that helped strengthen the manual scavenging Act. We now want to see it implemented. A range of programmes we are involved with in India covers areas such as providing better sanitation and better rights for women, children and minorities to get them the help they need—but responsibility for the implementation of that law must rest squarely with the Government of India.

My Lords, India is seventh in the world GDP ranking. It has the laws in place to tackle the loss of life in this most dehumanising of ways of making the most basic living we can imagine. In the Minister’s view, what is the reason for the lack of urgency by the Government of India in bringing an end to such a monstrous method of eking out a living?

It is inextricably linked to the caste system, as we have said. The economy of India is one of the fastest-growing in the world and, in all likelihood, will become the third-largest economy in some 10 years. It is still presently home to one-third of the world’s poor, and 600 million people do not have access to basic sanitation.

My Lords, notwithstanding the 2013 legislation, the caste system and untouchability predate partition. Scavenging and degrading labour have persisted right across the Indian subcontinent, including in Pakistan. Is the Minister aware that, only last week, a 13 year-old was excluded from a classroom because he had touched the water supply in that classroom? He was beaten and his mother was told he had no place in that school because he was only fit for menial and degrading jobs. Is not this issue of untouchability also to be seen in the case of Asia Bibi, who has spent nine years in prison having touched the communal water supply in her village? She has been exonerated by the courts in Pakistan, yet is still held in custody and not allowed to leave that country. We have spent £2.8 billion over the past 20 years on overseas aid to Pakistan—that is £383,000 every single working day. What difference is that money making to the treatment of minorities and the abolition of things such as caste?

It is making a big difference. I am certainly aware of these cases, because the noble Lord has made me aware of them, and I am grateful to him for that. We are looking at them and following up. The reality is that both Pakistan and India are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That has some very specific language in Article 18, which talks about recognising that all people are equal and that discrimination is against the law. It is also against their constitutions. We need to work with the Governments of these countries to ensure that they uphold the very laws they have—and we will continue to do that.

My Lords, yesterday the House was reminded of the immense contribution from the Indian subcontinent in the war that ended 100 years ago on Sunday. Would it not be entirely appropriate to rescue these people who are mired in filth by taking a new initiative to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War?

It is an interesting point. I attended, perhaps with the noble Lord, a lecture here last week on that contribution. I think that something like 1.3 million people were involved and 74,000 lost their lives. We remain open to whether further work needs to be done. I would be very happy to engage in a dialogue with noble Lords who have an interest in this area to see what shape that could take.