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Manual Scavenging

Demeaning, Illegal, Lethal Yet Prevalent: Manual Scavenging Continues Despite Being Banned 25 Years Ago

The practice of manual scavenging has been outlawed since 1993 but despite the 25 year ban, the manual scavengers still exist in large numbers, here’s how the practice fares as of today


New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi made yet another trending headline during the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj where he washed the feet of the ‘Safai Karamcharis’ or sanitation workers as mark of respect for their efforts in ensuring a ‘Swachh Kumbh’. PM Modi was taking part in the “Swachh Kumbh Swachh Aabhaar” award function on Sunday at Prayagraj, where he acknowledged the efforts made by the ‘swachh karmacharis’ to keep the Kumbh grounds clean and felicitated the swachhaagrahis (clean India volunteers) for their dedicated services at Kumbh 2019.

NDTV spoke to one of the ‘safai karamchari’ Hori Lal, whose feet PM Modi washed to honour him,

I felt like I was dreaming! I couldn’t believe that the Prime Minister himself was washing my feet, it still feels like a dream!

While Hori Lal felt honoured for the recognition and the honour bestowed on him by the PM, many on social media urged the Prime Minister to also turn his attention to those in the inhuman and demeaning profession of manually cleaning the sewers even today, and the hardships they have to endure despite the practice being banned in 1993.

Twitterati did not exactly react the way PM Modi expected

In our country, people do not choose the profession of sanitation workers but are forced into it depending upon their caste. 22-year-old manual scavenger Vinay Sirohi, who entered one of the sewage drains under the jurisdiction of Delhi Jal Board’s (DJB) Keshavpur area, could not make it out alive due to suffocation from the toxic fumes present inside the drain. According to Vinay’s mother, he wasn’t even wearing any protective gear, not even something as basic as a mask. His mother insists that manual scavengers or other sanitation workers in India are not heroes but victims of century-old caste system.

Also Read: After Skill Training For Better Jobs, Manual Scavengers Return To Cleaning Sewers In Delhi

Vinay was one of the 20,500 people ‘identified’ as a manual scavenger by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as per a survey across 18 states in 2017.

But when an inter-ministerial task force conducted their survey to count manual scavengers in India this year, it was estimated that there are at least 53,236 manual scavengers nationwide. According to them, this is still less than the actual figure as the data was only collected from 121 out of more than 600 districts in the country. One major gap in these figures is that the data from the largest employer of manual scavengers in India, the Railways, is not included.

Today in India, even Swachh Bharat Abhiyan does not really address the issue of manual scavenging and as per Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, Bezwada Wilson, Founder of Safai Karmachari Andolan, the government fails to acknowledge how deep-rooted the issue of manual scavenging really is.

Mr. Wilson has also stated several times, that the reason why we do not have a concrete figure for the number of manual scavengers presently is because when the inter-ministerial committee was given the task with collating the data, most of the people did not readily accept that they are involved in the practice. This is due to the caste based discrimination and the fact that the practice is illegal and manual scavengers fear arrests or legal trouble.

The practice of manual scavenging as per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is referred to as “manually or barehanded cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta from the insanitary latrines”. The act seeks to completely ban the practice as picking up untreated human excreta with bare hands is dangerous to one’s health as well as hygiene and be the cause of diseases like Hepatitis A, E. Coli, Rotovirus, Norovirus, and pinworms, other than the danger of suffocation inside the sewers.

Also Read: Delhi Strives To Rehabilitate Manual Scavengers; Officials Say Removing Social Stigma Critical

Most commonly, Dalits, who are considered at the bottom of caste hierarchy, are employed to do this inhuman and hazardous job. Manual scavenging is not only caste-based but also a gender-based occupation with 90 per cent of them being women. The practice of manual scavenging was criminalised by the government of India under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993. Despite being outlawed 25 years ago, there is no definite estimation of people engaged or dying due to the practice.

And yet, according to the data by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, there have been 634 deaths related to manual scavenging since 1993, with Tamil Nadu reporting the highest number of such deaths at 194, followed by Gujarat 122, Karnataka 68 and Uttar Pradesh 51.These deaths are due to ‘safai karamcharis’ or manual scavengers being asphyxiated by poisonous gases present inside the sewers. The spokesperson added,

Swachh Bharat for whom? About 1,800 sewers cleaners have suffocated to death in the last decade even though 634 were officially recorded” says a spokesperson from Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a group that is campaigning to eliminate Manual Scavenging. “Most of the roughly 160,000 workers involved in cleaning human waste are women.

What Has The Government Done So Far To End Manual Scavenging?

Despite the existing ‘Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, the Government of India passed the new legislation – Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which forbids the employment of any person for the task of manual scavenging by any agency or individual. The act further lays down the rules and procedure for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers through training in alternate employment, financial help and help with purchasing property.

The financial assistance, as part of the act, includes cash assistance of Rs. 40,000, loans of up to Rs. 15 lakhs at concessional rate of interest, credit linked bank end capital subsidy of up to Rs 3.25 lakh and lastly Skill Development Training for up to two years with a stipend of Rs.3000 per month.

The Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment (2016-17) observed that as per the Census 2011 data, there are approximately 26 lakh insanitary latrines in the country. Yet, it noted that the corresponding number of manual scavengers was significantly lower at 20,500 (as of January 31, 2017).

It attributed this to slow progress in the identification of manual scavengers by states and union territories. It also noted that some states had failed to upload the number of identified manual scavengers on the survey website. Since the upload is a mandatory requirement for the release of cash assistance, there was no demand made for funds.

Also Read: Hundreds Protest In Delhi Against Deaths Of Sewer Cleaners

The committee also recommended that a fresh survey of manual scavengers be carried out. This will allow for better assessment of fund requirements and result in increased allocation to the department.

Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment also reinforced the implementation of a scheme titled “Pre-Matric Scholarship scheme to the Children of those engaged in occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards” as per a statement released by them in July, 2018. Children of manual scavengers are also eligible for this scholarship.

Fighting Manual Scavenging: Some Initiatives

August 2018 saw the inauguration of India’s second World Toilet College. The institute aims to train 5000 sanitation workers over a period of 2 years. The main motto of World Toilet College is to develop the skills of the sanitation workers. Narasimhan Eswar, Senior Vice-President and Managing Director of the college told NDTV,

We aim to educate the sanitation workers that there are equipment and devices available to help them do their job, they don’t have to necessarily get down in the sewer and do it themselves with their hands.

Mr. Eswar added,

We’re not just providing them the training on how to use these equipment but we’re also giving them knowledge, information and contacts on how to get soft loans from banks so that they can purchase these kinds of equipment, use them and have a much more dignified way of living.

When NDTV asked Mr. Wilson about the viability of the rehabilitation being provided by the government, he asserted that the rehabilitation is viable only on papers. Mr. Wilson explained,

Part of rehabilitation is government providing loans to the community and cash assistance, but they fail to implement or even understand how to go about the implementation at the ground level. These people are even scared to go and accept the loan being provided, as they’re not sure of how they will pay the amount back. They fear that they will be put behind bars as they will fail to repay the loan. Secondly, women who have been involved in the practice for decades now, are unable to attend the skill development trainings as there is a mind-block present at the ground level.

Also Read: 634 Deaths Related To Manual Scavenging Recorded In 25 years: National Commission For Safai Karamcharis

The Delhi government in August, 2018 also held a workshop at Shahdara on skill development for manual scavengers. The workshop, held by the Deputy Commissioner (Shahdara) K. Mahesh, was attended by Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha. The workshop trained and skilled 28 manual scavengERS.

Additionally, various types of sewer cleaning machines have also been introduced by the WHICH? government and private or non-govermental organisations to help end the practice of manual scavenging.

In June , , twelve new truck mounted suction-cum-jetting machines were flagged off by the South Delhi mayor to boost storm drain- cleaningand de-silting capabilities of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) during monsoon.

On the other hand, in the temple town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, Municipality decided to deploy ‘Bandicoot’, a pneumatic semi-robotic device developed by a startup called GenRobotics Innovations Pvt Ltd. The machine is designed to clean the filth and other liquid waste clogged in manholes and reduce number of deaths related to manual scavenging. IT costS Rs. 15-17 lakh, ‘Bandicoot’ was first introduced in Kerala in February 2018. Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu deployed it for the first time on July 21.

On World Toilet Day 2018, Sulabh International unviled ‘Hope’ machine, ideal for periodic mechanical desilting of manholes and to flush out sewer lines using the powerful jetting pump.

According to Mr Ajay Kumar, Senior Advisor, Sulabh International, the machine is vehicle mounted, electro-hydraulically operated, sewer jetting and rodding along with the feature of mechanical manhole desilting. The features of the machine also include personal protective devices and sewer quick view pipe inspection camera. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International announced while unveiling the machine,

We often hear the tragic news about the sewer workers losing their lives while working inside the sewer. This is a matter of grave concern for all of us. With the machine, a worker won’t have to enter the sewers, risking their life and dignity and violating the Manual Scavenging Act but even if the need arises for them to enter the sewer, then the machine is fully equipped with gas checking machine, protective gears and dress to protect the workers from harmful gases.

At the unveiling of Hope machine, Delhi BJP President, Manoj Tiwari had noted, “Now that the Sulabh founder has taken the initiative to bring the machine here, I request the Delhi government to buy more of such vehicles. I have also asked the three MCDs to purchase more of these vehicles.”

Also Read: India Has More Than 50,000 Registered Manual Scavengers: Survey By Ministry Of Social Justice

When the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swachh India Cleanathon Campaign Ambassador, Amitabh Bachchan found out during the 12-hour live show on October 2, that there are machines available for cleaning sewers, he committed to donate 50 such machines. He also wrote about it on his blog, post the show, post the show. He wrote,

On finding out that there were machines available to clean-up sewers, it was of immense wonder why the machine were not being used. So on finding out the costs of each machine, knowing where personnel could be trained to teach them how to use them and to prevent the workers from manually going down sewers was the debate, I made a contribution of 50 such machines to be bought and put to use immediately so we can save lives and save the indignity of these workers.

In November, Mr. Bachchan donated two small individual machines to two sanitation workers trained at World Toilet College, Aurangabad which trains sanitation workers in using a safe and an advance way of cleaning the sewers and drains.

In addition one large truck machine was also donated to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai at Mr Bachchan’s home in Janak, Mumbai. The amount donated by Mr. Bachchan will also be used to provide individual machines for sanitation workers in Mumbai, Pune and Aurangabad. He tweeted,

At the NDTV Cleanathon , ‘banega swachch india’ , seeing the inhuman plight of the manual scavenger, I had committed to buy 50 machines for them .. today I fulfilled that promise ! 25 small individual machines and one large truck machine gifted to BMC !

In an attempt to end the practice in the national capital, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on February 28 flagged off a fleet of 200 sewer cleaning machines. The vehicles that are capable of entering narrow lanes and clean even 30 feet deep manholes will ensure the safety and dignity of civic workers. The machines have been provided to skilled manual scavengers making them ‘sanitation-entrepreneurs’, as per the Delhi government.

Also Read: South Delhi Municipal Corporation To End Manual Scavenging, Boost Storm Drain Cleaning With New Machines

In the 2019-20 Interim Budget, the government allotted Rs 39.87 crore for five national commissions, including the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Backward Classes, as against the allocation of Rs 33.72 for 2018-19. Out of the 39.87 crores, just Rs 9 crores has been set aside for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis this year.

However, these efforts are not enough as per Bezwada Wilson, Founder of Safai Karmachari Andolan, who believes that a ‘political will’ IS required to bring about change is missing when it comes to completely eradicating manual scavenging. Mr. Wilson, adding that technologies being introduced are not a solution but just a part of the solution, said,

India has the capacity to resolve any problem, we have people, we have the money and we have the resources. But the only thing missing in resolving the issue is the political will. There is no definite solution or plan that the government has to eliminate the practice…they have absolutely no solution.

“Government announcing that they are providing 100 machines won’t help. As machine is definitely not an end to the problem. He also says that the government efforts should be appreciated but these are not end solution and more commitment is needed from both centre and state to put an end to it,” he added.

Discussing the issue of manual scavenging prevailing in the urban areas at the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swachh India Cleanathon on October 2, Uma Bharti, Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, said that it is a shameful act. She said,

Before sending someone in the pit to clean it, we should ask the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the area to go down. For sure, he will not go without ensuring his safety.

Navi Pillai, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said about the practice,

It is crucial that adequate resources are provided to enable the comprehensive rehabilitation of liberated manual scavengers. This is the only way these grossly exploited people will be able to successfully reintegrate into a healthier and much more dignified work environment, and finally have a real opportunity to improve the quality of their own lives and those of their children and subsequent generations.

In 2018, there have been 102 ‘documented’ deaths due to manual scavenging as per Mr. Wilson. “But that’s definitely 2-3 times lower than the actual number as many deaths rarely get recorded as people refuse to report deaths a lot of times,” he added.

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollutionclean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.

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