The Indian Railways has just announced that it has converted all toilets, since 2014, in the trains into bio-toilets, eliminating, as it were, a long history of odorous association with the railways.

This is not only a major aesthetic and hygienic development, but also a major step towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of making India manual scavenging-free. One of the biggest problems before the introduction of bio-toilets in the efforts against manual scavenging was the use of manual scavengers, through private contractors, to clean railway tracks upon which human waste from train toilets would fall. The introduction of bio-toilets, thus, as the Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal wrote, “… restored dignity to those who spent their lives carrying the burden of being a manual scavenger”. This is no small feat when you consider that according to the Indian Railways Civil Engineering portal, as of March 31, 2020, the total running track of the railways was 99,235 km.

Manual scavenging has been a scourge in Indian society for, well—since no one can accurately say for how long, let us just say a very long time. Though outlawed through The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, there were persistent reports that this kind of labour was being hired and used in a wide range of activities, including cleaning train tracks.

Fighting such societal ills, including those related to caste discrimination, has always been fraught with contention in India. The role of structural change, for instance, through the application of the markets, technology, and infrastructure, is not accepted by many traditional researchers of social equity and justice.

This, even though, recent research has shown how effective such interventions could be. For instance, in research conducted in 2010 by Devesh Kapur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett, and D. Shyam Babu, ‘Rethinking Inequality: Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the Market Reform Era’, the researchers showed that in just about a decade of interaction with freer markets, new kinds of hitherto almost unknown mobilities seeped in, and with it a non-negotiable demand for equity, whether in affirming the right to sit (on a chair or bed) at the same level as an upper caste person and in the presence of an upper caste person, to the refusal to bear the brunt of undesirable tasks in the village. For instance, while disposing of animal carcasses had been a designated role for Dalits from time immemorial, this changed with the interaction with the markets, and better job prospects, and mobility to the city. While three-fourths of the carcasses or more were being cleared by Dalits in the villages surveyed before the liberalisation of the economy, this dipped to 5% in the years following the opening of the markets.

The moral of the story is simple: structural changes can make a significant difference. This is not to suggest that technological, infrastructural, or market-driven interventions are the only solution, or even the entire solution. No doubt social behaviour transformation has an important role to play but embedding equity, or in this case eliminating inequity, from the very framework is crucial.

The idea is to remove arenas or spaces where discrimination could be enacted, to not leave any sphere or sector open, where prejudice could flower. This elimination would also put out of action protracted monetary interest, in the form of the private contractors employing manual scavenging labour, thus, taking out the biggest incentive perpetuating this crime. Additional rehabilitation methods and formats would naturally have to be applied to ensure that the erstwhile scavengers find other modes of employment, including skills training, so that they do not have any reason to open themselves to being exploited again in the future.

As one of the world’s largest railway networks now in the process of a once-in-a-generation upgrade process, this act of eliminating the old-style toilets is perhaps more important than almost anything else that the Indian Railways is doing, including bringing in new technologies for safer, faster trains. It has, in one stroke, eliminated one of the worst forms of discrimination in Indian society—the forced labour of one human being having to clear, with their hands, the excreta of another.

If this reform sustains, railway travel, and manual scavenging would be de-coupled forever, and one of the biggest institutional attacks to eliminate manual scavenging would be made in the seven decades of the republic. It is one of those moments when public policy is not merely public good, but a true blessing.

Views are personal. The author is a historian and a columnist. He is a multiple award-winning author of nine books.

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