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Though manual scavenging is banned, it continues with impunity even as these workers lack basic safety gear. Worse, budgetary allocation for their rehabilitation has been reduced drastically


 ~By Ramesh Menon

It was just another day for Jaykumar, 28, in Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu last month when he was asked to go into a manhole and clear the blockage in the sewage. He took along Velu, 26, and Murugan, 35, to help him out. It is not an easy job. Velu got in first, but when there was no response, Murugan followed. And when there was silence from the duo despite Jaykumar shouting out to them, Jaykumar followed. All three were found dead due to asphyxiation by poisonous gases in the sewer.


A similar tragedy played out in Bengaluru last month when two sanitation workers, Anjaneya Reddy, 34, and Yerraiah, 35, got into a 15-ft-deep manhole to clean it. As both were not responding to calls, Dhavathi Naidu, 40, the driver of the tractor who had ferried them, panicked. He also got in to check. All three were asphyxiated to death.

Hundreds have died in their prime due to this occupation—manual scavenging—which, though banned in India two decades back, continues. Ever since the Supreme Court prohibited manual scavenging in one of its orders two years ago, as many as 1,500 conservancy workers have suffocated to death in underground sewers. Protective gear like masks and gloves is hardly ever provided to them. It is a national shame.

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Despite a law that prohibits manual scavenging, the practice goes on unhindered. Recently, the warden and supervisor of a Hyderabad orphanage that shelters HIV+ children, made some of them clean a manhole. After a video of a small girl cleaning the manhole with her bare hands went viral, the police arrested them.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, makes the employment of manual scavengers a criminal offence. The Supreme Court order also directed that families of those who died cleaning manholes and septic tanks since 1993 be given a compensation of Rs 10 lakh.

Ever since the Supreme Court prohibited manual scavenging, as many as 1,500 conservancy workers have suffocated to death in underground sewers

For ages, manual scavenging has carried on as a caste-based occupation where Dalits are condemned to clean and carry human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. There are an estimated 96 lakh dry latrines in India which can only be manually cleaned and these are there in 256 districts.

As long as the caste system thrives in India, there is little hope of this scourge going away. Almost all manual scavengers are Dalits, who for decades have been allotted this job.

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A manual scavenger goes about her demeaning job as a daily routine
A manual scavenger goes about her demeaning job as a daily routine

Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson, who has been fighting against manual scavenging, rightly said there is no political will to fight the practice that is rooted in the caste system and bureaucrats don’t understand these grassroots realities when they talk of eradicating this practice. Enacting laws to stop it has not helped as the culture of manual scavenging has been socially approved. We already have the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Yet, thousands of manual scavengers continue with the degrading profession they are forced to undertake.

Abhorrent practice

The Asian Human Rights Commission describes manual scavenging as follows: “Manual scavenging in India is ‘lifting and removal of human excreta manually’, at private homes and toilets maintained by municipal authorities. The practice consists of gathering human excreta from individual or community dry latrines with bare hands, brooms or metal scrapers into woven baskets or buckets. This the scavengers then carry on their heads, shoulders or against their hips, (and in wheelbarrows if they can afford it) into dumping sites or water bodies. Apart from this, many scavengers are similarly employed to collect, carry and dispose excreta from sewers, septic tanks, drains and railway tracks.”

The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) says that it is a matter of shame that since 1993 there has not been a single case of prosecution for this scourge even as many government bodies, the largest of them being the Indian Railways, continue with the practice. The deaths of workers employed in this job due to asphyxiation is often recorded as death caused by negligence or accident and never adequately compensated, it said.

According to the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census, there are 1,80,657 households engaged in manual scavenging. Official figures indicate that Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal account for more than 72 percent of insanitary latrines in India. However, 13 states and Union Territories have reported that in January this year, they only had 12,737 manual scavengers.

Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson says that there is no political will to fight the practice that is rooted in the caste system

AF Mathew, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, told India Legal that the biggest problem is that India’s caste-based society would continue to keep manual scavenging alive, while the government lived in denial. Numerous states have reported that they do not have a single manual scavenger!

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State government figures presented to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes last year showed huge contradictions between the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers. This was indicative of how officialdom lives in denial of manual scavenging. Take Telangana, for instance. It reported 1,57,321 dry latrines as of December 31, 2015, but zero manual scavengers. How do these latrines get cleaned? Himachal Pradesh reported 854 dry latrines but not a single manual scavenger. Chhattisgarh reported 4,391 dry latrines but only three workers. Obviously, the statistics had been dressed up, as having manual scavengers when it is banned by law can be a problem.

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While various states live in denial, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) reported that from March 2014 to March 2016, as many as 1,268 people had died in sewer holes and septic tanks. Subhash Desawar, convener of the Punjab wing of SKA, said that most of the deaths are not reported as manual scavenging is illegal.

The Gujarat Safai Kamdar Adhikar Andolan claimed there were at least 200 spots in Ahmedabad alone where the municipal corporation gets its workers to manually clean human excreta. In this state, manual scavenging is usually done by the Valmiki community, which is in the lowest rung among Dalits and are even shunned by them.

Though the government had set aside    Rs 470.19 crore to rehabilitate manual scavengers in 2015-16, not a rupee was spent. PUDR said that while one of the most publicised programmes of the NDA-led Modi government is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, sanitation workers who are central to this issue have been ignored. In fact, the budgetary allocation for rehabilitation of manual scavengers has been reduced drastically from Rs 4,656 crore in 2013 to a mere Rs 10 crore in the 2016-17 budget.

Shomona Khanna, the lawyer for Safai Karmachari Andolan, said that manual scavenging is perhaps the most abhorrent practice of caste-based enslavement and these people are treated as untouchables.

Bindeshwar Pathak, who pioneered the Sulabh Toilets movement in India, and has been a vocal proponent against manual scavenging, told India Legal: “India needs another freedom movement. This time it should be to free thousands from manual scavenging. They deserve a life of dignity. But this will not happen until the lower castes are socially accepted by the higher castes.”

He added: “Dr BR Ambedkar had said that in the United States, it only required a statute to free the slaves, but in India, the Dalits would be free only if everyone went to the temple together, bathed in the same pond, drew water from the same well and dined together.”

Do any of us see this happening in the near future?

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