Anil (40) died on September 14, 2018 while clearing a block in a sewage line at Dabri, a locality in north-west Delhi. Cleaners hired by state governments and civic bodies are supposed to be provided safety equipment like gas masks, goggles, gumshoes, gloves, safety belt etc. Yet, Anil was unprotected when he died of asphyxiation due to the presence of poisonous gas in the gutter. Delhi saw a wave of anger around official apathy on the issue despite 10 similar deaths were reported in the capital before this.
Anil had lost his youngest child, a four-month-old baby to fever just a week before he died. His wife Rani who is just 35 years old has been left devastated after the sudden death of her husband. Left with domestic work as a means of livelihood, she has three children to look after. It’s a great loss for her but she realises that this is not the time for grieving.
The family is yet to receive the compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the government as mandated by the Supreme Court in 2014. She is being supported by the Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation fighting for the eradication of manual scavenging. The Andolan which had fought a protracted legal battle in the Supreme Court for the dignity of countless people trapped in the inhuman profession is demanding a job for Rani. The judgement directs the government to identify manual scavengers and rehabilitate them with alternative jobs after imparting skills training. The SC/ST commission too has demanded immediate compensation from the Delhi government.
As per estimates of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, there are around 25 lakh manual scavengers in India, of which almost 1.6 lakh are women.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 are in place, yet deploying services of people for cleaning drainage and septic tanks continues unabated despite the ban. Several court orders have failed to stop these practices and even policies for rehabilitation and compensation of the workers have not succeeded.
"Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is bent on turning sanitation into a business and does not address the issue of manual scavengers,” adds Bezwada Wilson, convenor, Safai Karmachari Andolan who has won Raman Magsaysay Prize for his work. Manual scavenging is illegal in India yet sewer line deaths are taking place regularly. “No other country bears such indignity due to the most hideous form of caste bias,” says Jayati Ghosh, a development economist who teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Who is accountable for these deaths? Why should any person be pushed into doing this sort of work? “Cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is not just a sanitation issue but also a human rights issue,” says Bhasha Singh, an independent journalist and writer, who has written a book on manual scavenging, Adrishya Bharat (Unseen India).
Instead of waiting for public investment in mechanised cleaning of septic tanks and sewers, the Andolan is assisting sanitation workers in going hi-tech and setting up enterprises.
Enabling tech solutions to clean sewers
Barely a month after Anil’s death, Rani is attending the India SaniTech Forum, which is deliberating on the need to adopt technologically advanced products for sewer cleaning to stop losing men to these “death traps”. Several women and men like Rani who have lost family members while manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks have set up Safai Karamchari Enterprises as a business to provide end-to-end services in this field.
It is set up as limited liability partnership companies in Delhi and Hyderabad and plans to seek contracts from civic bodies to maintain sewers safely. They plan to use technologies that have been innovated by scientists and technologists while working with the Safai Karmachari community. “It’s heartening to see that the initiative to provide alternatives is from within the community and they have brought scientists and technologists together onto this platform,” says Usha Ramanathan, a board member of Safai Karmachari Andolan and an expert on law and poverty. The Safai Karamchari Andolan is helping other groups register companies in Haryana, Uttarakhand and Punjab.
Technical solutions can ensure that the tasks are performed with dignity and there are no deaths in a sewer. Almost every speaker at the India SaniTech Forum points out how science and technology had been kept insulated from this area in the last 70 years by the state and the intelligentsia. “These are not deaths but institutional killings,” says Wilson.
Sewer cleaning robots can clean the muck
Wilson says we lack the political will; the government is constructing millions of toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission, but is completely silent about those who clean them. “The Swachhta Hi Seva campaign, at the bottom, is about letting people die in the sewers doing the ‘seva’. It’s a national shame that the government has not yet provided adequate equipment like sucking-cum-jetting machines to clean sewage lines and septic tanks,” says Wilson.
Despite the government’s professed efforts to end it, the practice continues. “The government could have put money in mechanisation to clean sewers rather than watch people die in gutters, considering that it can develop a Mangalyan,” says Prof Sunil Agnihotri, IIT, Mumbai who, along with his students, is working on developing automation to deal with the problem.
“In many cases, municipalities do not take the initiative, so we are now working on giving loans to self-help groups and Safai Karmachari Enterprises to buy equipment and machines,” says National Backward Classes Finance and Development Corporation managing director K. Narayan. With these efforts, let’s hope that manual scavenging will end soon.