The Government of India is undertaking some key measures to amend the manual scavenging laws, making the cleaning of septic tanks and sewers mechanised, replacing the word ‘manhole’ with ‘machine hole’ and setting up a dedicated national helpline to register complaints and provide solutions on desludging and overflow.
On World Toilet Day (November 19), launching the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge at a webinar in New Delhi, Shri Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State, Independent Charge, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, said, “We are today setting another milestone by launching the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge which aims to ensure that no life of any sewer or septic tank cleaner is ever lost again owing to the issue of hazardous cleaning.”
The Government announced that their aim is to eliminate manual scavenging across the country by August 2021. The Senior Minister ensured that no person needs to enter a sewer or septic tank, “unless absolutely unavoidable in the interest of greater public hygiene.”
To make sure that the challenge is efficiently implemented, he also announced that the actual on-ground assessment of participating cities will be conducted in May 2021 by an independent agency and results of the same will be declared on Independence Day and winning cities shall receive hefty prize money.
Manual Scavenging and the question of Caste
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 to the 2013 Act set to be introduced by the Union Government in September this year planned to make the laws more stringent. It focused on provision of protective gears and compensation in cases of accidents but missed out on one major point- the sanitation worker’s rights.
The new Bill maintains silence on the issue of caste. Mechanising manual scavenging is a positive step but why a blinkered approach towards recognising that sanitation work remains a caste-based occupation? The provisions in the Act must be drafted in a way to undo their unjust history.
The 2013 Act recognises that manual scavenging is a ‘dehumanising’ practice which arises from continued existence of unsanitary latrines and a ‘highly iniquitous caste system’, but does very little to rectify it in the 2020 proposed bill.
The lack of proper facilities and water supply in public toilets in urban cities, force workers to manually scavenge human excrements and throw it in the nearby dumping grounds. Sullu, a Safai Karmachari from Begusarai (Bihar) told The Indian Express, “We get harassed by the police regularly for illegal dumping. I do not understand how I am liable for illegal dumping when there are no proper designated dumping points. If there is excrement that I have to clean from the toilets now how am I not a manual scavenger.”
The Act also fails to categorise the sanitation workers into faecal sludge handling workers, railway cleaners, workers in waste treatment plants, community and public toilet cleaning workers, school toilet cleaning workers, etc to set proper wage structures and entitlements. The definition of manual scavengers needs to be more evolved and inclusive.
The National Safai Karamchari Commission had revealed that from 2010 to March 2020, 631 sewer and septic tank cleaners had lost their lives and the highest number of deaths was reported in 2019 at a whopping 115.
According to an assessment by the Social Justice Ministry, despite the enforcement of Manual Scavenging Act and Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, FIRs are seldom lodged in deaths caused by this practice, convictions are rare and the Supreme Court-mandated compensation of Rs 10 lakh is not provided to all families.
At present, engaging anyone for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is punishable with imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of Rs 5 lakh or both. The new Bill proposes to make the law banning manual scavenging stricter by increasing both the imprisonment term and the fine amount.
However, Bezwada Wilson, co-founder and national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) told The Wire, “A judge will hesitate to convict an offender of this Act if the prison sentence is higher. So, this is counterproductive.” When the number of cases registered are so low, making the laws stricter will barely protect the workers and continue to fail them.
As recently as 2019, The News Minute had reported that Chennai had seen it’s first FIR under the Manual Scavenging Act, when a young 25-year-old worker choked on the toxic gas in a septic tank and died. He was employed by an independent agency to clean the septic tanks in the mall premises. The legislation must focus on doing away with the contractual employment system that forces workers to indulge in this filthy, thankless job of manual cleaning.
Despite Indian laws deeming manual scavenging illegal, it remains to do very little for the workers and most importantly their safety. So, the aim to eliminate manual scavenging should not be a proposed practice but the only practice.
The entire press release may be read here.