Caravan of sewer deaths rolls on

Caravan of sewer deaths rolls on

Transgressors remain undeterred and deployment of human beings for the abhorrent task continues in flagrant violation of the law. We must put a complete stop to manual scavenging. (DH File Photo)

The death of a cleaner on January 25 in a sewer in the heart of Bengaluru, and four days later that of the contractor who tried to save him, comes as a rude blow to all those wishing to see the end of manual scavenging, a practice abolished long ago. Transgressors remain undeterred and deployment of human beings for the abhorrent task continues in flagrant violation of the law. We must put a complete stop to manual scavenging.

In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed. Besides banning manual scavenging, the Act sought to punish those employing scavengers with one-year rigorous imprisonment and Rs 2,000 penalty. It also banned construction of dry latrines. The fact that no cases of violation were registered for 20 years after the Act was passed is a pointer that no meaningful measures were initiated to enforce it.

Nothing moved till the Safai Karamchari Andolan was launched in 2003 in collaboration with civil society organizations. It took upon itself the task of highlighting the official apathy in implementing the Act. The government put out official figures, saying there were 697,000 manual scavengers across the country, but the Andolan’s countrywide survey presented evidence that there were twice that number -- about 1.3 million. The government kept extending the deadline to eliminate manual scavenging. In 1993, the deadline was 1995. Then it became 2000, 2003, 2005, 2012 and 2013. It is 2020 now, and manual scavenging persists.

The Andolan undertook a ‘Samaj Parivartan Yatra’ on a caravan of buses to create a national awareness campaign. It worked, and hundreds of manual scavengers gave up work in response. Protesters demanded effective implementation of the 1993 Act and a ‘rehabilitation package’ — a deficiency in the original Act — for those giving up the occupation.

When the Andolan filed a PIL in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s claim that there were no more manual scavengers, the latter was effectively debunked with photographic evidence of latrines being scavenged by persons.

The National Advisory Council under the UPA government passed a resolution in October 2010 declaring that manual scavenging would be completely eliminated by March 31, 2012. Consequently, the Union government’s Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment set up four task forces to conduct a survey, assess the progress of implementation and to prepare a draft plan for public hygiene. Finally, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed in September 2013 and the official notification issued in December of that year.

The national struggle against manual scavenging witnessed another turning point in March 2014 when the Supreme Court gave the following ruling in response to a writ petition in Safai Karamchari Andolan vs Government of India. It directed the Union and state governments in the following words:

1. The 2013 Act should be implemented fully and action may be initiated against violaters;

2. Deaths occurring in sewer holes and septic tanks should be stopped forthwith and manual scavenging should not be allowed even in emergency conditions in sewerage systems;

3. Rs 10 lakh should be given towards compensation to the next of kin of all those who have died while cleaning sewer manholes since 1993. But the caravan of manual scavenging deaths continues to roll on.

Going by the statistics from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, one sanitation worker dies every five days while cleaning septic tanks or getting down into sewer holes. The year 2017 registered 137 deaths, there were 105 deaths in 2018 and 50 in the first half of 2019. Deaths are unavoidable so long as the practice of manual scavenging persists. The 2013 Act outlaws manual cleaning of toilets, sewer lines and septic tanks without safety gear by workers and mandates use of mechanized equipment.

One needs to look into the intricacies of the issue.

Firstly, it is deeply embedded into the caste system that refuses to die. Despite migration to cities, individuals from certain castes are forced to follow the traditional occupation as they are kept away from other jobs. Even those who have converted to other faiths cannot escape the traditional restrictive mindset (scavengers who embraced Islam were called ‘halalkhor’ and similarly stigmatized).

Second, the administrative apparatus operates through a network of contractors and subcontractors and it is difficult to pin the blame on any individual or fix culpability on a particular agency.

Third, most such deaths are registered as ‘death due to negligence’ and the next of kin take the course of settling the case outside the court through compensation instead of getting into protracted litigation.

Fourth, although the agencies managing water and sewerages do have suction and unclogging machines, they can operate only on sewer lines, not within the septic tanks in apartments or housing enclaves.

A possible solution to avert deaths and end the demeaning practice of deploying human beings could be found in robotics, where research needs to be promoted to find ways to unclog sewer drains, shafts, pipelines and tanks. Japan has robots that enter danger zones like quake-affected tunnels and ones that clean cobwebs inside air-conditioning ducts. Technology could have the answers.