On February 1, 2020, Ravi, 25, descended into a 15-20 feet deep sewer at CBD ground at Karkardooma in Delhi. A daily wage labourer, Ravi was not equipped with safety gear to unblock the pipeline. When he fell unconscious, the private contractor in charge forced Sanjay, 48, to enter the manhole next. Sanjay too fainted. Ravi died of asphyxiation while Sanjay gained consciousness in an ICU ward a week later. “The contractor was aware of the risk and yet he threatened he would not pay our daily wage (Rs.500) if we didn’t enter the sewer,” Sanjay told Frontline, sitting in his dark home in Vishwas Nagar Extension. Health complications have left him invalid after the incident, and his family is in financial dire straits.
It was back in 2013 that the then Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit had banned manual scavenging in the National Capital Region (NCR). Regardless, there are at present, as per official figures, 58,098 “eligible manual scavengers” across the country, who manually clean sewers and septic tanks and handle human excreta. Fast forward to 2023. While presenting the Union Budget on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that all cities and towns would switch to 100 per cent mechanical de-sludging of septic tanks and sewers, putting an end to manual scavenging.
On February 8, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, told the Rajya Sabha that at least 308 individuals have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the past five years (2018-2022), of which 52 are from Tamil Nadu, 46 from Uttar Pradesh, 40 from Haryana, 38 from Maharashtra, and 33 from Delhi. (Experts say the actual figure could be higher since FIRs are not registered in many cases.)
Athawale said that a scheme called National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem (NAMASTE) has been formulated to promote mechanisation; sewer and septic tank workers are to be provided with training and protection gear besides health insurance, and the scheme will cover all urban local bodies in the country. While it sounds promising, one suspects it will remain a half-hearted and half-implemented measure, especially because there have been many such declarations in the past that have produced no practical results.
And yet, switching to mechanised scavenging is not a big deal. Recently, the founders of the Chennai based start-up Solinas Integrity appeared in Season 2 of the television series Shark Tank India with a robotic solution to manual scavenging. With the availability of mechanised options and every successive government’s apparent commitment to the cause, manual scavenging should have been a thing of the past. As Prof. N. Sukumar, an expert on social exclusion who teaches political science in Delhi University, said: “When Indian science has touched the moon, why is it taking so long to reach our toilets and sewer pipelines?”
Those engaged in “India’s dirtiest job” are predominantly Dalits, who face social exclusion and violence across the country owing to their caste identity. “No place in the world sends people to gas chambers to die,” the Supreme Court had said on sewer deaths in 2019, asking the Centre why protective gear was not provided to sanitation workers. In its judgment in Delhi Jal Board vs National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers & Ors (2011), the apex court stated: “The human beings who are employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who will not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes. The state and its agencies or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs.”
Arguing that the state has never been serious about abolishing manual scavenging, Prof. Sukumar told Frontline: “There is a close relationship between the caste system and manual scavenging, where the social hierarchies of the varna dharma are to be kept intact as per the cultural practises endorsed by civil society and the state. If the state really adhered to the Directive Principles of State Policy and addressed the caste question, it would have solved the problem.” The professor cited the example of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book, Karmayogi, where the Prime Minster describes manual scavenging as a spiritual experience. He also recalled Modi “worshipping” sanitary workers at Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj in 2019. “Such justifications do far more harm than good. Manual scavenging cannot be abolished until we stop valorising it.”
Since “untouchability” was legally abolished by The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, manual scavenging has been regularly discussed in Parliament. The practice was banned by the Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Again, in 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government enacted a stronger law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. As per rules, manual cleaning is allowed with precautionary measures only in such cases where machines cannot be deployed.
But the situation on the ground has not changed, according to Bezwada Wilson, head of the sanitation workers’ movement, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). “People who are providing the sanitation services are being completely neglected because of the caste system. The government is not fulfilling its constitutional obligations,” he told Frontline, calling the provision in Budget 2023 a farce that lacks perspective. “We were expecting the Prime Minister and the Union Finance Minister to tell us clearly when they are going to stop killing us inside sewers and septic tanks. One death is being reported every third day. We are asking for accountability. But there is no word on the liberation of sanitation workers or their rehabilitation.”
In the NCR, as per official data, 45 per cent of the population is still without sewage facilities. “The cleaning work of septic tanks in unauthorised colonies, industrial areas, housing societies is outsourced to private contractors who are scarcely held accountable by the authorities,” said Ashok Kumar Taank, Joint Secretary of Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM), which has been working for the rights, safety, and dignity of sanitation workers. The primary executive agencies for the cleaning of sewers, septic tanks, and open drains in Delhi include Delhi Jal Board (DJB), New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), Delhi Cantonment Board, Delhi State Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC), Delhi Development Authority (DDA), and Public Works Department. “They outsource the work to private parties, depriving sanitation workers of the safeguards promised by Factories Act, 1948,” he said.
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Sanjeev Kumar, Secretary of DASAM, said that despite directions of the Delhi High Court, the Supreme Court, the National Human Rights Commission, and the International Labour Organization’s Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958, manual scavenging remains a casual sector, drawing workers from a historically discriminated community who lack legal awareness and education. “This ad hocism must end. Even for mechanised work, you need human intervention. The government needs to engage sewer and septic tank workers as permanent staff instead of outsourcing the work to private contractors. Or the government must ensure that private contractors adhere to all rules and regulations,” Kumar said, adding, “Even FIRs are not registered in many cases of deaths of casual sewer workers.”
Even though the State governments of Delhi and Maharashtra have deployed sewer suction pumps to unclog drains, sewer-related deaths have not stopped. Shaileshkumar Darokar, chairperson of Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, stressed the need to develop sewer lines and the technology to clean them besides equipping sanitation workers for mechanised scavenging.
““No place in the world sends people to gas chambers to die,” the Supreme Court had said on sewer deaths in 2019, asking the Centre why protective gear was not provided to sanitation workers.”
“The majority of toilets in our country, nearly 60 per cent, are not linked to sewer lines. Their septic tanks require manual cleaning. Same is the case with the millions of new toilets that have been constructed in recent years,” he said. “There should be 100 per cent mechanisation, that’s the only way to liberate manual scavengers. But while focussing on the work conditions of sanitation workers, the government also needs to pay attention to their social security, health, and children’s education. We don’t need mere palliative measures,” he said. When sanitation workers die, their families are often deprived of their sole earners. If FIRs are not registered, chances of getting compensation are slim.
When Rohit Chandaliya and Ashok Gulia died on September 9, 2022, on entering a manhole in a DDA apartment, the Delhi High Court took suo moto cognisance. Public departments such as the DJB, the DDA, and the Delhi government started passing the buck. While hearing the case, Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma said in November 2022: “We are dealing with people who are working for us so that our life is made comfortable. And this is the manner and method they are being dealt with by the authorities. Very unfortunate. My head hangs in shame.”
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As per the Supreme Court’s judgment dated March 3, 2014, in Civil Writ Petition No. 583 of 2003, the aggrieved families received a compensation of Rs.10 lakh from the State government in December 2022.
In the case of Ravi, who died in 2020 at CBD ground at Karkardooma, the compensation came after a long legal battle waged by DASAM. But survivors like Sanjay, who have been disabled by manual scavenging, are left in the lurch. Taank said: “There is neither any law nor court guidelines for compensating survivors who become incapacitated after inhaling toxic fumes inside sewers and septic tanks. Many workers contract long-term diseases, and die without medical care.”
Sher Singh fell unconscious while cleaning a septic tank in May 2019. “I was engaged with four others on the promise of Rs.2,000. While cleaning the tank, all of us lost consciousness but two suffocated to death,” said Singh, who suffers from tuberculosis, sitting in a one-room rental house in Bhagya Vihaar, an unauthorised locality in north-west Delhi. “Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal came here soon after the incident and promised survivors financial assistance of Rs.2.5 lakh. Sadly, we haven’t received the money yet,” he said.
- There are at present, as per official figures, 58,098 “eligible manual scavengers” across the country.
- While presenting the Union Budget on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that all cities and towns would switch to 100 per cent mechanical de-sludging of septic tanks and sewers, putting an end to manual scavenging.
- Such announcements have been made in the past too but did not produce any result.
- Those engaged in “India’s dirtiest job” are predominantly Dalits, who face social exclusion and violence across the country owing to their caste identity.
- In spite of repeated discussions on the issue in Parliament, the situation on the ground has not changed.