India's manual scavengers: Ugly truths of unsanitary sanitation work an open secret, law needs better enforcement

Editor's note: This is part of a seven-part series on manual scavenging in India. It examines the practice from a socio-political point of view.

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An open secret

Even today, the very existence of manual cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and manholes in our country, along with the alarming death rate among these workers, is an open secret. Across India, manual scavenging and its allied forms — the manual cleaning of dry latrines, sewers, manholes and septic tanks, removal of debris from sewage canals and any interaction with excreta — are openly prevalent, defined as a "cultural occupation" attached to a few so-called lower castes — Hindu Dalits, a few Dalit Muslims and some converted Dalit Christians.

In India, this occupation is hazardous, unsafe, unsanitary, undignified and above all, legally banned by Parliament a few years ago. The level of vulnerability increases as we move from rural to urban areas. However, reports indicate that these days, there is increased fatality in rural India, as well, and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan runs the risk of amplifying the problem even more!

 Indias manual scavengers: Ugly truths of unsanitary sanitation work an open secret, law needs better enforcement

Representational image of manual scavenging in India. News18

A few months ago, data from the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK) revealed shocking facts on the pattern of the deaths of manual scavengers from January 2017 to September 2018 and were widely shared by media houses and social media users. "In India, every five days, a manual scavenger dies in a sewer, septic tank or a manhole," the report said. However, its scope was limited as its primary source of data was statistics from NCSK, which has disarrayed information organised arbitrarily.

For the same period, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) collected more reliable data, recording more than 180 deaths of manual scavengers with their names, ages, places of death, origin and other relevant information, as well as news reports. Extrapolation of SKA's data explained horrific facts about the cleaning of sewers in India — that one manual scavenger dies every two days.

The difference between NCSK's enumeration and SKA's data does not lie in just the number of deaths but also the total rejection of the collapse of family's emotional relationship and their sudden economic instability. The data obtained by SKA for 2017-2018 found the average age of deceased sewer workers to be around 32 years, indicating that these families lost their breadwinner for most of the families is extremely sad and highly unacceptable.

There is also the matter of how the deaths of manual scavengers is reported and whether they are reported to begin with.

The same data shows that more than 67 percent of the deaths reported in sewers is in metros, highlighting the sheer negligence of people forcing sewer cleaners to go into deep, filthy pits despite the presence of a sanitary infrastructure. Similarly, more than 28 percent of the deaths are from septic tanks in towns and cities with a population of one lakh and above. However, this does not mean that less than 5 percent of the total deaths are in rural India, or towns with a population of less than one lakh. It's all about the reporting.

Furthermore, the preposterous implementation of the law banning manual scavenging — passed with the aim to safeguard, rehabilitate and protect manual scavengers or sewer workers from all types of exploitation and humiliation — clearly indicates the government's real intention. The deliberate under-reporting of the deaths of manual scavengers and the politics of not listing a number of them highlights this further.

'Legitimising' their deaths

Manual scavenging and its various forms have become part of the Indian sanitation sector's everyday affairs. The Prohibition and Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, disallows all kinds of employment that force individuals to engage with human excreta in any form manually. The Act — passed for damage control after earlier policies were deemed ineffective — also turned out to be a dead letter like the 1993 law.

Nothing in the Act mentions provisions related to the death of manual scavengers. Even though nearly all sewer deaths are a result of lack of safety equipment, the Act fails to explain what qualifies as "appropriate safety gear".

In 2014, when the Supreme Court delivered its verdict by expanding the contours of the 2013 law, it also realised that the manual cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and manholes is hazardous and puts the workers' lives at risk. Considering the dangers involved in this occupation, declaring Rs 10 lakh an appropriate compensation in case of their death is unfortunate and does nothing but condone their death. Rather than following the Supreme Court's orders of ensuring that manual scavengers are provided with safety gear and that the sanitation infrastructure is restructured, municipalities chose the compensation route as they mostly outsource the unsanitary sanitation work.

In March, six people died due to asphyxiation in Sriperumbudur after inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning a septic tank. Similarly, in February 2018, seven people died of asphyxiation while cleaning a private septic tank in Chittor. In a remote village of Chattisgarh, five people lost their lives in a septic tank, the same month five others died while cleaning a sewer near DLF flats in Delhi's Moti Nagar area.

This is not a new pattern. In fact, this has been the on-ground reality right from the beginning.

In more than 82 percent of these incidents, there are multiple deaths, indicating that they are not just accidents but cases of lack of structural execution. During their suffocating job, they are denied access to the equipment mandated by the Supreme Court. Workers lose their lives trying to help their trapped colleagues, all the while battling the toxic fumes in the gas chambers that are septic tanks themselves. Their sacrifices further highlight the indifference of the State.

The present government, which spends more than Rs 18,000 crore every year on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, allocated only Rs 47 crore for rehabilitating manual scavengers in 2014-2015, which was 1 percent of the total funds allocated by the previous UPA-II government. In the three subsequent years, the NDA government spent Rs 10.01 crore (2015-2016), Rs 1 crore (2016-2017) and Rs 5 crore (2017-2018).

Ironically, a response to an RTI query found that the government had spent Rs 530 crore on publicity for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan on TV and print media during the same years.

The message here is clear. The government has no intention of rehabilitating these workers but is only interested in trapping them in the web of manual scavenging. As proof, the marathon drive to construct lakhs of latrines in both rural and urban areas will certainly demand the reinvention of manual scavenging as an occupation. Whether to clean septic tanks or dry latrines, the job will continue.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Since January 2019, more than 25 sewer workers have died of asphyxiation across the country, including in densely populated cities. Prime Minister Nanredra Modi, who paid tribute to the sanitation workers of Varanasi by washing their feet during his visit to the Kumbh Mela, had tweeted soon after that he would "cherish these moments" his entire life. A fierce campaigner of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Modi has yet to launch any radical approach to end manual scavenging in India. Instead, he has observed a cryptic silence by never once mentioning the deaths of manual scavengers. If the prime minister acknowledges the work of these sanitation workers by washing their feet, it is hard to comprehend the future trajectory of their welfare and rehabilitation.

Year after year, the pervasiveness of the deaths of manual scavengers has become prosaic reality. It is hardly surprising that the battle against the monster of manual scavenging is mostly fought by organisations, activists and manual scavengers and their families themselves. However, lack of resources and other constraints make it difficult for them to sustain their efforts. Such is the state of affairs despite a law being in place to put an end to the practice, albeit in a country where legislation flourish a lot on paper.

The same goes for the process to disburse compensation, which is not as straightforward as directed by the Supreme Court. Not all families who lose their breadwinner receive this compensation. The eligibility criteria for deaths in sewers are haphazard and up to the government to decide, with families being forced to overcome bureaucratic hurdles.

The perils of manual scavenging will stay unaddressed till the casteist attitude of washing their feet or trying to fix this problem from an economic perspective alone remain. By not acknowledging how embedded the caste factor is in the practice of manual scavenging, we, as a society, are being nothing but silent witnesses to State-sponsored crimes.

The author is pursuing a PhD at the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT-Bombay, where his research focuses on the study of waste, environment, infrastructure and caste, with special reference to sewage and the manual scavengers of Hyderabad.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 16:21:22 IST