In the week leading up to the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, Kyatappa spent a day in a septic tank in Madhugiri, Tumakuru district, cleaning human excreta. The celebrations mean nothing to him, “freedom is for educated people, not for people like me,” he says. His realities are still rooted in caste discrimination and economic impoverishment.
Over seven decades after the birth of India, the country remains shackled to manual scavenging, conferring indignity on those who have no choice but to carry on the inhuman practice.
For more than 30 years, Kyatappa (60) has cleaned sewer pits for a living but has not been able to bring himself to tell his two children what he does to put food on the table and send them to college. “I am afraid that they will look at me differently,” he says.
The sights and smells of his work compelled him to consume copious amounts of alcohol. Once he comes home, he can barely touch food. There are days he has survived on just tea.
India has passed legislation, carried out surveys and put in place rehabilitation processes to end manual scavenging. Two laws, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSRA), not only outlaw the practice but also penalise those who employ people to clean human excrement.
Despite these measures, the country has been unable to accurately determine the number of people who work in clearing human faeces, let alone rehabilitate them and put the practice in the past. Layers of discrimination — from society, bureaucracy and politicians — towards deprived castes have compounded the issue. A majority of manual scavengers, about 97%, belong to Scheduled Castes.
The crisis of identity
If there is alternative employment that is consistent, Kyatappa says he would change his occupation in a heartbeat. But government rehabilitation programmes require that he is identified as a manual scavenger first. That in itself is a tall task because officials have failed to verify his work. “I have travelled to the district headquarters four times but I have still not received an ID card,” he says. Rehabilitation still remains a distant dream.
Like Kyatappa, many manual scavengers struggle to be identified officially.
Hurdles in survey and verification procedures and bureaucratic non-compliance have made it next to impossible for them to be recognised.
According to government data, there are about 58,098 manual scavengers across India. But activists and experts say this number is a gross underestimation.
The government has carried out about seven national surveys but data differs widely, making it difficult to form a clear picture of the number in the country.
The National Safai Karmachari’s Finance and Development Commission (NSKFDC) conducted the latest survey on manual scavengers in 2018. The survey, conducted in 14 states, found 87,913 people engaged in clearing human faecal matter in India. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which commissioned the NSKFDC survey, recognised only 48% of those identified.
Even though PEMSRA mandates that surveys be conducted by the local administration, their lackadaisical attitudes mean that a grassroots account is not reliably maintained.
K B Obalesh, Karnataka convenor of the Safai Karmacharis Kaval Samiti, says, “The standard operating procedure in these surveys mentions that the last place the manual scavenger cleaned must be inspected. Officials also converse with the owners of households, often in a threatening manner, and ask if the scavenger had been employed,” he says.
Since employing someone as a manual scavenger is a legally punishable offence, many deny that they had ever employed someone to clean their sewer pits. “The application then gets denied,” he says.
An official in the Department of Rural Development confirmed that survey officials often have to engage with homeowners as they are required to take photographs of the pits. “If the Centre changes its guidelines, we will follow,” the official says.
This unwillingness to undertake a comprehensive survey, which is central to rehabilitation efforts, betrays the government’s intentions, according to Pragya Akhilesh, director of the World Sanitation Workers Alliance. There is a reluctance to identify manual scavengers as it would increase the State’s responsibility to rehabilitate people and also accurately log death tolls due to sewage cleaning. “They will have to accept that sewer deaths are murders by the State due to their own negligence and lack of intention,” she explains.
In addition, ambiguous definitions have created confusion on the ground about who qualifies to be a manual scavenger – do workers who clear manholes and blocked sewerage networks count?
Recently, the Minister of State of Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale said in the Lok Sabha that there was no report of anyone engaged in manual scavenging as per the 2013 Act. “However, 330 persons have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks during the last five years,” he said.
According to the 2013 Act, a manual scavenger is anyone who manually cleans, carries, or disposes of human excreta from an insanitary latrine, open drain, pit or railway track before the excreta fully decomposes. While the 2013 Act expanded the definition of manual scavengers to include those who clean railway tracks, it still leaves out several workers who clean sewerage lines or manholes.
“The Act does not include other types of cleaning that are more common in recent times, such as clearing of manholes and sewage lines. This is where most people die,” says Siddharth Joshi, a Bengaluru district committee member of the Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti.
Problem with drainage system
A failure to modernise sewage, drainage and toilet systems to eliminate manual scavenging has contributed to the problem.
In the villages surrounding Tumakuru town, toilets are in abundance, a sign of the success of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). For Selvaraj*, a 30-year-old manual scavenger, this has meant more work.
In rural homes, close to 72% of toilets need manual intervention, according to DH’s analysis of data from the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2019-20.
“SBM only focuses on building ‘infrastructure’ and not on the conditions and rights of the sanitation workers, who are working endlessly to maintain them,” says Pragya.
Only 26% of homes had twin-leach pits, a facility that manages faecal waste on site. Other toilets, with open drains, septic tanks, single-leach pits and closed pits, all require manual cleaning.
In urban India, about 44% of all homes are not connected to piped sewer networks, according to a 2017 survey. “The unwillingness to modernise sewage drains, many of which cannot handle robotic intervention, is another way in which administrative bodies make manual scavenging seem inevitable,” says Obalesh.
Sources in the Urban Housing and Development Ministry say that the government plans to purchase machines, that cost Rs 1.25 lakh each, for 500 cities and gram panchayats. This would eliminate the need to physically enter sewers and septic tanks.
But the technology needs to be properly utilised. “Municipalities and gram panchayats must allocate funds to ensure that people who operate the equipment get paid. If the machine breaks down, is there money set aside for repair?” asks Y J Rajendra, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Karnataka. Without such provisions, the machines will soon fall into disuse, he explains.
Health and rehabilitation
The physical toll that the job takes is high. Dr Asha Benakappa, a physician, says, “Becoming a manual scavenger means getting married to diseases. Workers are prone to water-borne diseases like typhoid, hepatitis A and B, cholera, dengue and malaria,” she says.
The conditions at work also leave them vulnerable to fatal infections like leptospirosis where liver cells die.
Coming in contact with toxic gases like ammonia, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide is inevitable. The most common hazard is asphyxiation due to noxious gases. On average, three sanitation workers die every five days because of manual scavenging, according to a study by WaterAid.
Not just physical impact, the indignity of work weighs heavy on the psyche and spirit of people who engage in manual scavenging. “People do not consider you human, they always look at you like you are dirty. It is a stink that never washes off,” says Selvaraj.
The denigrating nature of work and its health risks only emphasise the pressing need for rehabilitation. Identified manual scavengers are supposed to receive one-time cash assistance (OTCA) of Rs 40,000, skill development training for two years with a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000 and a capital subsidy loan of Rs 5 lakh.
Only 31% of identified workers, that is 27,268 of them, received some form of benefit from government schemes and only 2% participated in the trainings.
In case of death due to sanitation work or manual scavenging, the family of the deceased is entitled to Rs 10 lakh, a permanent job and other benefits. In 24% of recorded sewer deaths, compensation is yet to be processed. Families that did receive compensation were seldom offered permanent jobs.
Anjamma (25), for instance, only received contractual employment as a sweeper after the death of her husband Narasimhamurthy. He had been sent to clean a septic tank along with his friend Chikkanna in 2015 in Tumakuru.
“I have to support three children but I do not have the confidence because my job is not secure,” says Anjamma.
The demand for steady jobs and upskilling resounds across families engaged in manual scavenging. “The OTCA is peanuts. Provide a five lakh package to scavenger families. Provide them with permanent employment as per Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment,” says Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay awardee and national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan.
Government intervention like rehabilitation and legal prosecution of those who employ people to clear faeces is key. Those who violate the PEMSRA can receive a two-year sentence of imprisonment or a fine of Rs 1 lakh, or both. The law has become a paper tiger as not a single person has been convicted in the nine years since its enactment.
The way forward
Systematic identification of insanitary latrines and surveys are central to the implementation of rehabilitation schemes. Without a “modern, mechanising sewerage cleaning system and an up-to-date drainage system and a robust penalising system, the oppression and murder of lower castes under the manual scavenging practice will continue,” says Obalesh.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy
(With inputs from Ajith Athrady in New Delhi)