- 39 workers have died due to manual scavenging in last 100 days
- Conviction of people guilty of employing manual scavengers is low
- Manual scavenging continues due to apathy of authorities and general public
For 45-year-old Swarn Singh, the morning of July 15 was a routine business affair. Along with four other co-workers, he had gone to a residential area in South Delhi’s Ghitorni. The workers were contracted to clean a water harvesting tank. Little did Mr Singh, or his other three companions know that the task would take a deadly turn, resulting in their deaths. Four of the five workers died due to inhalation of toxic gases, suspected to be accumulated due to sewage from an adjacent line collected in the tank over a period of time. 22-year-old Jaspal, Swarn Singh’s son is the only survivor of the five unfortunate men who went to clean the tank on Saturday morning.
The death of four men while cleaning a tank raised justified questions on the continuing practice of manual scavenging that exists till date. A derogatory practice, manual scavenging is confined to people belonging to lower castes and as a profession is inhuman with low pay and nearly nil safety measures provided. Manual scavenging remains a dominant practice across India, despite the passage of The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993. The Act was again revised 20 years later in 2013, and stressed on not only eradicating manual scavenging but rehabilitating families which were dependent on manual scavenging as a profession. With 39 deaths in the last 100 days in 2017 alone, it is a right time to ask how effective have been the measures taken to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging?
Apathy of Authorities
While the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared the eradication of manual scavenging by 2019, the ground reality is starkly contrasting and fulfilment of the Prime Minister’s promise looks difficult. As per the 2011 Socio-Economic and Case Census, 1,82,505 rural households in India were dependent on manual scavenging for income. The biggest problem in addressing the issue of manual scavengers is the lack of Central and state governments to accept that the practice still exists and declare actual figures related to the number of manual scavengers.
In July 2016, a meeting was convened by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), where representatives of states and union territories were asked to share data related to the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers. The data submitted however, showed severe mismatch. As of December 2015, Telangana reported 1,57,321 dry latrines but zero manual scavengers, a barely believable figure. Himachal Pradesh declared 854 dry latrines in the state but zero manual scavengers, while Chandigarh reported 4,391 dry latrines but only 3 manual scavengers. The numbers clearly show the reluctance of state governments to identify the existence of manual scavenging as a prevalent practice. Rajasthan, Punjab and West Bengal were the only states which reported an increase in the number of manual scavengers in the last two years.
Many states claim that they have zero manual scavengers, which is entirely untrue. India still has 26 lakh dry latrines. How are these cleaned if not by manual scavengers? Despite two national legislations, manual scavenging is still not being taken up by states or the Centre. And amidst this apathy of the authorities, people are losing their lives, said Beswada Wilson, founder and national convener, Safai Karmachari Andolan.
Guilty Go Scot Free
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is a comprehensive legislation which prohibits employment of manual scavengers, terming it as a non-bailable offence and offenders could be imprisoned for up to five years. Despite being a stringent legislation, the utilisation of the Act has not been impressive. Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has campaigned for the eradication of manual scavenging since 1995 estimates that between 2014 and 2016, nearly 1,500 people have died while cleaning septic tanks across India. Between 1993 and 2013, no convictions were recorded for violation of the Manual Scavenging Act. This shows the apathy of state governments and local authorities towards the practice. Karnataka, which has over 15,000 manual scavengers, recorded 60 deaths related to manual scavenging, between 2008 and 2016. Even worse, no convictions were recorded in relation to these deaths, showing how lightly the problem was looked at by the state administration.
The negligible number of convictions show that authorities are often apathetic towards the plight of manual scavengers. The notion that people belonging to lower castes are fit for such a profession is very deep-rooted. The lack of willingness to convict those guilty of employing manual scavengers arises from this deep-rooted caste bias towards people belonging to schedules castes or tribes, said Clifton Rosario of Alternate Law Forum, which filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court against the continuance of the profession.
The process of identifying and rehabilitating manual scavengers is still a distant dream. Despite allocating Rs 8 crore to states in 2015, the Centre is yet to receive a report from states on the status of manual scavengers and how many have been rehabilitated. Among states, only Uttar Pradesh rehabilitated 5,252 manual scavengers of 10,016, between 2014-16 and spent an amount of Rs 21 crore in doing so. The states of Karnataka, West Bengal, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh failed to rehabilitate even the officially identified number of manual scavengers.
Public Apathy, An Added Problem
While state authorities must be blamed for the continuance of manual scavenging, much of the general public too has been apathetic towards manual scavengers and their plight. The continued employment of people to clean septic tanks is an illegal practice in itself and the general public must be aware of the issues related to the practice. Many people insist on building toilets with septic tanks as they know that they can get someone to clean the toiler by spending a meagre amount every month or two months, irrespective of how dehumanising the whole job is.
The act of employing someone to clean drains or toilets is itself heinous. The problem lies in those who look down upon the people belonging to lower castes and find no problem in them engaging in such menial work. Most of India’s manual scavengers belong to scheduled castes or tribes and are routinely exploited in terms of wages, said Mr Wilson.
Manual scavengers are employed at low wage rates of Rs 150 to Rs 200 per day, that too for excruciating toiling for nearly 10 to 12 hours. Employers are mostly unsympathetic, not recognising the conditions of their work and not supplying them with adequate safety equipment necessary to deal with sludge, sewage or excreta, which can be hazardous in nature. The recent case of death of four manual scavengers is an example of how negligence towards their safety was the primary reason for the loss of their lives. Gloves, protective clothing, gas masks are not provided by employers, resulting in many manual scavengers losing their lives over the course of their profession.
When Will the Practice End?
Manual scavenging is still a topic which authorities and general public love to brush under the carpet. The existence of this ‘non-existent’ profession is a big blot in India’s social conscience, especially when the government has been promoting its sanitation campaign aggressively in the past three years. The two national legislations have been barely effective and the continued denial of manual scavenging by states has also not helped the case of people employed in such a profession. To eradicate the practice of manual scavenging, the development of a national level consciousness is a must, along with strict adherence to the Act of 2013.
The Prime Minister speaks on so many issues but has never spoken about the deaths of manual scavengers. He must condemn the practice strongly and regularly and direct officials to implement necessary practices to tackle manual scavenging. It is surprising that for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the focus has been only on toilet building but not on eradication of manual scavenging or the workers’ rehabilitation, said Mr Wilson.
For states, the points of focus should be on identifying manual scavengers and rehabilitating them, as per the 2013 Act. Speedy disbursal of the rehabilitation package of Rs 40,000 is a must. The 2013 Act directs state governments to provide a one -time rehabilitation package of Rs 40,000 to identified manual scavengers. Further, the practice of employing manual scavengers, which has been deemed illegal, should be strictly dealt with. In March 2017, Byappanahalli police in Bengaluru registered a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, against a contractor for employing three manual scavengers who died during cleaning of sewers. In the Delhi incident last week, a similar charge was levied on two men held responsible for employing the workers. Last week, the Madras High Court also issued a directive to the Centre and states to ensure that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was duly implemented. But above all, it is also up to general public to realise the dehumanising nature of manual scavenging and become aware of the implications of employing workers in such a derogatory profession.