The death of five labourers who were cleaning a sewer tank in Delhi recently is another reminder of the failure of the country to put an end to the practice of manual scavenging. The workers died after inhaling toxic gases. Similar deaths have been regularly reported from the national capital and from other places. Manual scavenging has been banned by law since 2013. If the law is violated blatantly and frequently in Delhi, the status of its enforcement in other places can be imagined. The government told the Lok Sabha that there were 300 deaths of manual scavengers, due to inhalation of toxic gases or for other reasons associated with their work, in the country in 2017. But it is not just the risky nature of the work that makes it unacceptable. It is a shameful and degrading practice and should have no place in today’s society.
Even government agencies employ manual scavengers to do the dirty work, though they deny it or find loopholes in the law to justify some kinds of work. Clearing of excreta from the railway tracks is sometimes claimed to be outside the scope of the law. But the law should be taken in its widest sense, and manually carrying, cleaning and handling of human excreta in latrines, sewers or any place should be considered as manual scavenging. The law allows the use of manual labour to clean sewage and sewer lines if protective gear is used and safety precautions are taken. But the prescription is hardly followed. The five workers who died in Delhi were untrained and had no protective gear. There is a view that this provision perpetuates manual scavenging by discouraging authorities from eliminating human labour altogether and going in for technology. The law has to be changed in this respect.
Government agencies are even reluctant to admit that the problem of manual scavenging exists. Or, they report much lower numbers than actually exist. Estimates have widely varied. A government task force recently said that there are over 53,000 manual scavengers in 12 states, but this estimate covered only 121 districts, out of over 600, and some types of scavenging were not included. Cases are not registered for violation of the law, except when deaths take place. Rehabilitation plans for manual scavengers have not worked well. The practice is also mixed up with the caste system and the attitudes that go with it. So, the law in its present, or in any improved form, will not help if there is no will to implement it. It should be implemented with sincerity and the practice should be completely eradicated.