Manual scavenging persists

Manual scavenging persists

With not a single conviction in sanitation-worker death cases, the practice continues unabated. Siddappa, 19, choked to death in a Bengaluru septic tank last week

The death of 19-year-old Siddappa, who died on January 25 of asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank, has again exposed the rampant practice of manual scavenging in Bengaluru.

Siddappa was working at SSBS Jain Sangh (Ganesh Bagh) – Infantry Road, when he choked to death. Muniyanna, who tried to save him, is in hospital. 

The Commercial Street police have filed a case against the managers and trustees of SSBS Jain Trust, but made no arrests.

Government records show 85 workers have lost their lives in Karnataka while they were engaged in manual scavenging. Of these, 36 have died in Bengaluru alone.

These deaths occurred when workers got into manholes and septic tanks to do what, according to the law, is to be done by machines.

Many organisations and individuals still engage men to clean their sewage lines, manholes, soak pits and septic tanks. The work is done with bare hands.

A majority employed in manual scavenging have breathing problems, body ache, skin ailments and a persistent fever.

The All India Centre for Trade Unions (AICCTU), Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti, All India People’s Forum, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and Slum Janandolana, protested on Monday near Town Hall and sought justice for Siddappa’s family.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and a Supreme Court ruling have affirmed this, says Clifton D Rosario, member of the All-India People’s Forum, one among the many protesters.

Caste oppression

“Manual scavenging is just a continuation of the caste oppression in this country. Those sweeping the streets and those cleaning the manholes, sewers and gutters are all Dalits,” he says.

Rosario blames police and bureaucratic apathy, besides lack of political will, for the persistence of manual scavenging. “There hasn’t been a single conviction in manual scavenging cases till date and all this despite a Supreme Court judgement. Ensuring that the investigation is done, the trial is completed and a conviction is secured is the job of the police,” says Rosario.

Police indifference

K B Oblesha, convener, State Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samithi, says the police often don’t register cases related to manual scavenging.

“For instance, when we recover the body, the police ask for proof. Isn’t a body covered with sewage proof enough to register a case? They still ask for evidence,” says Oblesha.

Sometimes, the police don’t even know under what section the case should be registered. “It has to be reported under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It is a non-bailable offence which also attracts a section of the Atrocities Act and provides for a jail term,” he says.

Fast-track courts should be set up so that convictions are obtained quickly. Despite a Supreme Court direction, the government is yet to complete the identification of all manual scavengers and rehabilitate them, Oblesha says.

“Also, the government hasn’t issued guidelines for the operation of private STPs, during the cleaning of which several workers have lost their lives,” he says.

Those forced to do manual scavenging say that they have no alternative job opportunity and are only continuing what their forefathers were doing.  Rajeshwari, pourakarmika, says, “It is illegal to force people to do manual scavenging. Those who make us do it don’t even provide safety gear. The contractors give us gloves, masks and boots only once in three or four years.”

Gangulappa, who has been working as a manual scavenger for 30 years, describes it as a humiliating occupation, but consoles himself that he at least takes home some money to take care of a family of five. 

It’s illegal

Manual scavenging is prohibited, and those who employ humans to clean manholes and septic tanks can be jailed and fined.

Police perspective

A senior police officer says the prosecution fails to get convictions because those named in the cases and the victims’ families arrive at a compromise.

“The poor usually come around when they are offered a large sum of money as compensation. This is why most cases don’t progress,” he says.

Sometimes, victims’ families are threatened into silence because the investigation exposes the shortcomings of the agency that is supposed to provide workers with machines, he explains.

When it comes to police follow-up, the officer admits a lack of empathy. “Also, we haven’t had any manual scavenger’s family come to us asking for a case to be followed up,” he says.  

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