Reflections on Republic Day



Come Republic Day and an apparent prevailing disregard for the Constitution becomes an occasion to stock take and introspect.


Earlier this year, the Supreme Court came down heavily on tendency of re-promulgation of ordinances. The apex court reasoned that this can amount to a fraud on the constitution, when an edifice of rights is built by subverting due legislative processes. It termed it as legislative overreach.


Leave alone re-promulgation of an ordinance, even an ordinance is required to be promulgated under exceptional circumstances, as it signifies a departure from the basic constitutional order. In this also, Goa did not lag behind. The Goa Regularization of Unauthorised Construction Ordinance, was promulgated on 24th June, 2016, without any coherent reason for not waiting for the matter to be discussed in the Assembly.


A disturbing development is the accentuation of how ‘difference’ is being treated or deployed. The Constitution of India considers that to treat individuals located differently on the social and economic spectrum, the same way, would be to treat them unequally. But the ruling dispensation does exactly this: it treats differently located people the same way resulting in inequality.


People in an unequal situation cannot be treated the same way. Writing in 1894, French novelist Anatole France had sarcastically remarked, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. Fast forward to November 2016 and there is still a basis for articulating such sarcasm, despite a Constitution that upholds the principle of substantive equality. Prime Minister Modi announced, in the aftermath of demonetisation, that “this (meaning demonetisation) move has brought the rich and the poor on the same tangent”. He completely missed the point that the rich can negotiate tangents with their financial clout, while the poor cannot. For instance, the rich could swipe their cards at malls, while the poor were cashless, cardless and even shirtless. The small vendor has been struggling with her business, which is not something the rich businessman (such as a mall-owner) would have to endure.


Another disturbing aspect is how ‘difference’ is deployed to imply that Goa may not need the special provisions focussed on addressing the discrimination based on difference. Even recently, at a youth convention in Goa, former Chief Minister (and currently India’s Defence Minister) Manohar Parrikar blew hot and cold stating that “though the situation in Goa is different, the social condition of SC and ST people across the country is not good”. Again completely missing the point that the reservation policy mandated by the Constitution, is grossly violated by the State in Goa. And as if this was not bad enough, even the wings of Commissions statutorily set up to monitor the enforcement of rights of marginalised sections, are clipped by a mere executive order when they choose to act on their respective mandate. As has most recently been the case with the Goa State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which has been told in no uncertain terms that it has no jurisdiction to look into denial of constitutional protection in service matters, after some persons began to tap the potential of the Commission for redressing denial of reservations.


It seems that Goa’s difference has over the years been projected to its disadvantage. It was the basis, for the Parliament not extending the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, suggesting that Goa’s women are not afflicted by the problem of dowry because Goa has a uniform civil code, where sons and daughters have equal rights to parental property. As if the uniform civil code has a correlation with the incidence or lack of incidence of dowry demand and dowry related harassment. Thus they made having the uniform civil code a reasonable classification for denying Goa some of the laws enacted in the rest of India to address women’s issues. It took a lot of persuasion by the women’s movement in Goa to get the law finally extended over three decades later.


Same with the acknowledgement of the existence of child sexual abuse and other crimes. The State has always tried to shirk responsibility by denial or by making odious comparisons. Ditto with the existence of AIDS in Goa. In these cases, the myth of difference – of being peaceful and safe, was sought to be deployed to cover up the existence and consequently to deprive the local population of appropriate measures of redressal.


Why, after reneging on last time’s poll promise of special status, as reflected in its 2012 election manifesto, the BJP’s Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar now says that Goa cannot get special status as it tops on all fronts. The arguments of a different history and connected consequences for citizenship, including holding of agricultural property and voting rights, as the rationale for a special status, are quietly swept under the carpet, not even considered.


Thus we see that difference is either not recognised, or the discriminatory attitude to being differently located in or vis-à-vis power, works negatively, but positive discrimination has rarely been the privilege of those in Goa who deserve it most.


Or where the difference is recognised, Goa and its people are commodified, used and abused. Everyone in Goa, it seems, has to remain content with Goa being referred to as a mole that lends beauty to the nation. Amit Shah in his recent visit reflected the spirit in which dominant India, including the ruling establishment, looks at Goa. Different and commodified, for selfish motives of a select few.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 26 January, 2017)


One Part Existence



They don’t exist in surveys conducted. They don’t self-declare their existence. The light of the Constitution is not allowed to shine in the poisonous gas-filled sewers in which they work. Even the ordinary labour laws pass them by, when they work in the most dangerous conditions.   They are the sewerage cleaning manual scavengers in Goa.


And then they die without existing and their deaths do no create the ripples that other unnatural deaths in Goa normally do. Their cause was never a wave. They are usually migrant and they belong to a really depressed caste whose conditions fail to draw the requisite attention obviously because of the caste location of the people who are involved in decision-making.  And yet the work they do has protected health of others at a cheap rate. What can one call these deaths but ‘murders by apathy’, to borrow a phrase from A Narayan of the NGO Change India?


The newspapers reported that the two workers who died last month, had been engaged by a contractor to clear the sludge of a starred hotel at Bogmalo. A few days later, a case was booked against the contractor who had engaged the workers, though the five star resort that engaged the contractor was not at all seen as having any measure of culpability. The contractor is now reported to be missing.


Reports from different parts of India indicate that the sewerage workers who are most in need of proper labour dues and security are the ones who are generally employed as contract workers. Neither is there a scrutiny of the contractor, nor is there any onus cast on the owner of the premises for hiring a contractor who does not have anything to show by way of safety measures for his workers.


In the case of the sewerage deaths at Bogmalo also, the workers were not locals. The name of one was Gajanan Dayanand Patil, while the other was Vishal Piyush Noronha from Mangalore. What is it about our humanity that these deaths do not stir us?


There is no comprehensive data about manual scavengers. Goa is happy to even deny their existence. As per the 2011 Census, out of 3,22,813 households in Goa, 667 households had night soil disposed into open drains, but the column of the number of open drains serviced manually read as nil. Correspondingly, the State-wise funds released under the Total Sanitation Campaign during the last three years, and also the current year, for Goa was zilch.


Maybe Goa doesn’t have people carting human excreta.  But the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, defines a manual scavenger as a person engaged or employed on a regular or contract basis, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, before the excreta fully decomposes. A person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of devices and protective gear is not considered a ‘manual scavenger’,


But the deaths of people now and in the past in the sewers show that manual scavenging, by way of sewerage cleaning without protective gear, is very much alive in Goa. Such workers because of the way manual scavenging is defined come within the twilight area of being manual scavengers in the sense of dealing with the sludge before complete decomposition, and yet not being definitively so considered because if they do work of this nature with the help of devices and protective gear they are not considered manual scavengers.


Earlier last month, Goa’s Directorate of Social Welfare beseeched manual scavengers to make a self declaration to the block development officer of their respective taluka about their profession so that necessary steps can be taken for their rehabilitation or regulation of their work. No one seems to have yet declared that he or she is a manual scavenger, and yet there are deaths of manual scavengers. The series of sewer deaths confirm that there are no protection systems for the workers. Therefore they should have been considered as manual scavengers and be rehabilitated.


The Tourist Trade Act must put an embargo on any tourist trade establishment engaging contractors who do not comply with labour laws and ensure proper working conditions for the workers they engage.


The system of manual scavenging is rooted in casteism that imposes this work on persons at the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy. This kind of culture that sees this work as God-ordained for certain castes finds legitimation in Narendra Modi’s book ‘Karmayog’ (2007) where he says that “manual scavenging is an experience in spirituality bestowed upon Dalits by gods and they must continue doing their work happily for centuries”. To this, one can only retort tongue in cheek, “How unfortunate that Brahmins have not been bestowed with this experience! And may be there should be 100% reservations or preference for Brahmins and other upper castes in these posts of safai karmachari in order to also experience this spirituality!” After all, in August last year, the Central Government had listed manual scavenging as a career option on its National Career Services Portal.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 July, 2016)