Feet of clay

Despite the Clean India campaign and a 2013 Act that expressly prohibits manual scavenging, there has been no effort to prosecute violators of the law or to prevent the death of manual scavengers while at work, not to speak of plans for their rehabilitation.

Published : Mar 27, 2019 12:30 IST

Workers clearing a drain in Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

Workers clearing a drain in Vellore, Tamil Nadu.

The theatrics of Prime MinisterNarendra Modi washing the feet of sanitation workers in Prayagraj notwithstanding, the report card of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been dismal with regard to manual scavengers. During Modi’s tenure, one worker died every third day while being engaged in the inhuman activity of manual scavenging. As many as 366 people were killed in sewer-related deaths over 1,744 days of the BJP’s rule at the Centre. This number is verifiable through documents collected by the Safai Karmachari Andolan from the family members of the deceased. The actual number is likely to be much higher. In 2017, there were 136 sewer-related deaths, while 112 people died in 2018. In 2019, 16 people have been killed in sewer-related deaths to date.

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act decisively put an end to the inhuman practice of any form of manual cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling of human waste. Soon after, the Modi government came to power but failed to implement the necessary preventive measures for the Act to become operative. While the local authorities resisted change after the 1993 ban on manual scavenging, there should have been proactive measures taken after 2013 to ensure the provisions of the Act were not violated yet again. But, as Sameer Taware of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan put it, the Prime Minister and his cohorts were only interested in showcasing their broom-wielding skills for photo ops. It was hypocritical because in the entire Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) campaign, there was not a single effort made towards the prevention of deaths of scavengers. In the five years since Modi came to power, even the basic provisions of the Act have not been fulfilled. According to the 2013 Act, central monitoring committees were to be formed at the State, district and block levels, but only 13 or 14 States and not more than 100 districts have achieved that to date, according to Taware.

“The toiletisation taking place under Modi’s flagship scheme of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is indirectly promoting manual scavenging,” said Taware, adding, “With every single toilet built under the Abhiyan, there is one septic tank being constructed which will have to be cleaned soon, probably a year down the line. The more the septic tanks, the more the workforce required to clean them. In the absence of any other provision, a person will be sent down to clean the sewer, putting his life at risk. This proportionately increases the risk factor.”

Leo Heller, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, pointed out that “in taking steps forward in the realisation of the right to sanitation, India may involuntarily contribute to violating the fundamental principle of non-discrimination. Particularly given the generations-old practice of imposing sanitary tasks on the lower castes, the growth in number of toilets raises concerns that manual scavenging will continue to be practised in a caste-based, discriminatory fashion. Even in the case of Clean India Mission’s preferred technology for excreta disposal, the twin-pit latrine, it is nevertheless questionable that manual scavenging as a discriminatory practice will be eliminated.”

Instead of taking the feedback in a constructive spirit, the Government of India immediately rejected the human rights allegations in the Special Rapporteur’s report, stating that these were sweeping statements that were “factually incorrect, based on incomplete information or grossly misrepresented the drinking water and sanitation situation on the ground”.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the BJP-ruled States denied the presence of manual scavengers outright despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Often, State governments allege that they find it difficult to implement laws as the Central government does not cooperate with them and vice versa. In this case, Taware wanted to know what the excuse of these BJP-ruled States or of the Centre, also ruled by the same political party, was. “They get cooperation for Namami Gange Mission but not for this. Why? The reason is caste. Besides, when the State says there are no manual scavengers, who will cross-check the data? Here, the violator, the local authority, is himself given the task of verifying his data.”

Meanwhile, although the 2013 Act had clearly laid down the provisions to deal with violations of the law, not a single person has been prosecuted so far despite many deaths. The Act authorises both imprisonment and fine as ways to deal with offenders who employ manual scavengers. But the police have not implemented the law properly. Often, first information reports are not written down, and when they are after community and activists’ intervention, incorrect sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) are mentioned. Instead of Section 302 of the IPC, the police apply Section 304 (A) which indicates death by negligence. “These are not accidental deaths. Not even in a single case has the employer been charge-sheeted, nor any punishment been meted out. While the contractors who hire the workers or the owner of the establishment with the septic tank are responsible, the principal employer is always the government under the Contract Act even when the work is outsourced. So, in that sense, at the end of the day, it boils down to the government promoting murder.”

According to Asif Sheikh of the non-governmental organisation Jan Sahas, the police should begin by registering at least 100 cases under the correct provisions of the law and prosecute the offenders. “Only then will it act as a deterrent to others seeking to employ manual scavengers. Even today, there are people who do not feel that it is illegal to employ people to go down sewers or clean excreta.”

Regarding the zeal of governments to mechanise the cleaning of sewers, Asif said that mechanisation was not an answer: “No one has estimated how much money is required to mechanise one district. The correct estimation would run into crores of rupees keeping in mind the human resources and continuous expenses. We tried mechanisation in a couple of places. But there are lakhs of toilets in every district and it would require more than 1,000 people to be engaged. If one is serious about eradication, then an alternative system needs to be thought of.” He added that while the 2013 Act banned manual scavenging on railway tracks, and all toilets were required to be converted from dry to flush toilets, no work has been initiated in that direction.


While experts in the field of social justice, such as P.S. Krishnan and Harsh Mander, have long since been advocating a community-centric model with regard to the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, their recommendations have repeatedly been ignored by the government. When an individual from a vulnerable community is rehabilitated, the odds are that there will be someone else who will step in to do the job, given the overall deprivation of the community. Instead, Taware suggests that provisions be made to give the community, which is entirely landless, some land and business opportunities, and their children be encouraged to find employment in technology-related areas or in sports. With the expansion of urban spaces, manual scavengers who reside in housing colonies in cities, and whose children go to government schools nearby, find that if they voluntarily leave their jobs, they may be displaced to resettlement slum clusters outside the city. In order to retain the houses, someone from the family is forced to follow the generations-old practice of manual scavenging. This problem can only be solved if they are given land. An added hurdle for the community members wanting to quit manual scavenging is the informal criteria attached by government officials for compensation. The States are admittedly reluctant to recognise that some workers had left the occupation on their own and were awaiting compensation. They were being asked whether they were still cleaning.

Taware said: “Since this is a historic injustice, there must be a plan for generational shift. It has been going on before the time of Gandhi. It is a shame that it still exists. Training in sewing and knitting is pointless in India. There must be a proper plan for rehabilitation. It is also a historical stigma that society has normalised and people of the community have internalised. Without systematic government intervention, the community will not be able to come out of the practice.”

A recent RTI query found that no funds had been allocated for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Half of what had been allocated by the previous United Progressive Alliance government, too, remained unutilised. Of the funds allocated by the BJP, most had been earmarked for conducting surveys, workshops and seminars. Applications for the actual rehabilitation of manual scavengers, pending from 2014, had not been processed to date. At this juncture, before the next general election, washing feet will not erase the fact that the Modi government has done nothing to address the concerns of the community over the past five years.


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