Manual Scavenging still on: How Swachh is GOI’s conscience?

On October 2, 2014, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission with the aim to achieve universal sanitation coverage within five years as a “fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi” on his 150th Birth Anniversary in 2019. While the Government lauds the success of the Mission covering 99.2 per cent of rural India in the last four years, it glosses over how sanitation workers and manual scavengers are losing their lives maintaining sewers and septic tanks in the name of clean India. Peoples’ Union on Democratic Reforms (PUDR) has probed into these hazardous occupations in their report titled “Chronic ‘Accidents’: Deaths of Sewer/Septic Tank Workers, Delhi, 2017-2019”. Here is an analysis of this report.

Manual Scavengers
Image Courtesy: Vikas Choudhary

The report itself may be read here:

The lives and deaths of manual scavangers and sanitation workers

Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually sanitation work such as cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling human excreta from dry latrines and sewers and involves the use of basic tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets. The practice of manual scavenging is inextricably linked to India’s caste system where those born into the supposed lower castes, such as Valmiki or Hela, were made exclusively responsible to perform this job.

Manual scavengers are, thus, at a double disadvantage. For one, they face enormous discrimination in society by being members of lower castes, and for another, they are disadvantaged because they are manual scavengers who clean human excreta. Their caste-designated occupation further reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable”. (See UN Brochure on Rehabilitating Former Manual Scavengers)

In their report, PUDR differentiates sanitation work into two kinds of tasks that both urban and rural sanitation work is divided into: the manual cleaning of toilets and carrying of feces from toilets (pre-dominantly performed by women) and the manual cleaning of septic tanks, sewers and gutters amid noxious gases with minimal or no safety precautions (performed by men).
[Note: The PUDR report has contended that official bodies have attempted to create a false distinction between the manual scavengers and sewer/septic tank cleaners so as to give priority should be given to manual scavengers. PUDR argues that such official narratives cause sanitation workers to be relegated to the background and questions as to the rights of sewer workers are left out of the debate.]
According to the data collated by the National Commission for Safai Karamchari, since 2017, one sanitation worker has died every five days in India while cleaning sewers or septic tanks. While a definite number of manual scavengers in 2018-19 has not been agreed on (see articles by The Wire, The Tribune India), at least 40,000 persons have been identified as such.
The main cause of deaths among sewage cleaners is the depletion of oxygen and presence of toxic gases, mostly hydrogen sulphide. At the bottom of septic tanks etc., the intake of hydrogen sulphide can result in death due to asphyxiation. Intake can also be irritating to the respiratory system, and result in nausea, delirium and convulsions and conjunctivitis. It is known that most sewage cleaners suffer from tuberculosis. Besides the severe health hazards, the sewage workers also become prone to frequent headaches, dizziness, sore throat, eye and skin irritation, poor memory, pneumonia and diarrhea among others. The extreme health risks caused by such noxious fumes were recently discussed in the Supreme Court. A three-judge bench while expressing serious concern over people dying during manual scavenging and sewage cleaning in India, said that nowhere else in the world are people sent into “gas chambers to die” like this.

Safai Karamchari Andolan’s (SKA) National Convenor and Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson has said that the smell of the gases in the sewage is so foul that it is humanly unbearable and the sewage cleaners consume massive amounts of alcohol before entering the pits so as to numb their senses to bear the state of sewerage. This results in these workers gradually getting addicted to alcohol and many die young due to the effects of alcoholism.  While the deaths inside the sewers have caught public attention, the longtime health hazards that either eventually lead to death or to a life infested with disease, are equally closely associated with this fatal occupation. Besides the recorded deaths caused by the toxic fumes, deaths are also caused by health risks that are not immediately fatal such as cardiovascular degeneration, skin diseases, respiratory ailments, jaundice, trachoma, etc.

Mobilising support and the legal scenario built around their protection

Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 outlawed the manual carrying of human excreta, construction and maintenance of dry latrines. Sanitation workers engaged in sewage cleaning were not recognized as a category to be protected under this Act. The power to file a complaint against any violation of the Act rested with the sanitary officer or the collector, and not the aggrieved worker.
The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993 provided for the constitution of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). Under the Act, a ‘Safai Karamchari’ was defined as a person engaged in, or employed for, manually carrying human excreta or any sanitation work.
In 2011, the Supreme Court proffered a judgement in National Campaign for Dignity & Rights of Sewerage & Allied Workers v. Municipal Corporation of Delhi wherein the Court issued a list of directives to provide legal protection to sewerage workers. The SC directives stated that sewerage workers must be provided with protective equipment by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, employment of workers is not to be terminated in the event of illness, medical treatment is to be provided to workers free-of-charge and surviving family must be given compensation in the event of a worker’s death. As the PUDR report notes, however, these reliefs fail to address the safety and caste-based stigma related concerns surrounding the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was the first to note that the practice of manual scavenging arises from “a highly iniquitous caste system” and acknowledge the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers. This Act recognises manual scavenging as not only to cleaning of dry latrines and carrying of human excreta but also the handling of an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of’. The Act defines a sewer as “an underground conduit or pipe for carrying off human excreta, besides other waste matter and drainage wastes” thereby bringing in sewer workers within its ambit.

The Act outlaws the employment of any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank, imposes a maximum imprisonment of two years and a contravention with imprisonment would extend it up to five years, and makes the local authorities duty-bound to use technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks in order to eliminating the need for the manual handling of excreta in the process of their cleaning.
In Safai Karamchari Andolan and Others v. Union of India and Others, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the treatment meted out to sanitation workers is violative of the constitutional provision that abolished untouchability under Article 17 as well as the workers’ fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. The Supreme Court issued directives saying no fperson would be forced to enter sewer lines without required safety gear, and that for each worker’s death caused due to cleaning of sewers, a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh be paid to the family of the deceased. It also ruled that the government was liable to compensate those families of those as well who died in the sewage tanks or manholes in and after 1993. Through this order, a writ was issued to the central and state governments as well as the union territories to effectively implement the Acts of 1993 and 2013.
In 2015, Safai Karmachari Andolan launched a unique 125-day protest against the deplorable working conditions faced by sanitation workers. Named “Bhim Yatra”, the protesting sanitation workers travelled through 500 districts in 30 Indian states to testify to the indignities still suffered by them. They covered more than 35,000 km across the country, and culminated their journey in Delhi on the eve of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th Birth Anniversary. (See Stop Killing Us, the Bhim Yatra of India’s Manual Scavengers tells the Indian Government)
In the first six months of 2019, even by the most conservative estimates, fifty workers have died cleaning sewers in 20 states, according to data available with the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). Looking at these numbers, it is clear that even as of today protection to sanitation workers is only really offered on paper. 

PUDR’s investigative findings

The PUDR report details findings from their investigation into six incidents of deaths of sanitation workers in Delhi that occurred while they were cleaning sewers/septic tanks between 2017 and 2019. The report then looks into the commonalities of pattern and context within these cases and and other similar incidents while casting light on the workers’ lives and their labour conditions.
The six cases of sewer deaths covered in the report span all corners of the city, and include two commercial malls: DLF Capital Greens, Moti Nagar and Fun Republic, Anand Vihar. In discussing potential reasons for the sewer deaths, the report notes these three patterns in each case.

First, there is a lack of urban planning with respect to maintenance of the concerned sewerage and septage systems by the concerned authorities including the state, municipal bodies, institutions and private companies.

Second, the sanitation workers appointed to clean the sewers/septic tanks are offered no training for the job or provisions for safety gear and safety equipment. In many cases, the report notes, the workers were coerced into working even after they specifically refused to do the work owing to its hazardous nature and stating that they did not have the necessary training or experience to do the work. In instances where their specific reluctance has not been noted, those called to do such work were clearly not trained for it, and were either unaware of the dangers of the work or believed that they had no other option.

Third, no criminal proceedings are initiated against those guilty of deploying these sanitation workers into these hazardous working conditions. Total socio-economic vulnerability of the victims allows for their mistreatment and subsequent denial of rights. Predominantly, state government or courts only award monetary compensation against such deaths and grievous injuries when such cases are brought up to them. In the incident that took place in Bhagya Vihar, Rohini, while the owner of the property was being prosecuted, he belonged to a relatively socially and economically disprivileged background as well. It can be seen from these instances that those directly responsible for these deaths may avoid being indicted if they are powerful.

Sanitation v/s Sanitation Worker

The estimated expenditure of the Swachh Bharat Mission geared to make India Open Defecation Free (ODF) by 2 October, 2019 was $9 billion at the time of its inception. Only little focus is spared for the treatment of septage and waste water from the newly-made toilets and manual scavengers that would be employed to maintain the sewage system.
Similarly, while the 2015 Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna provides for building houses in rural India, it does not focus on any components of the sanitation value chain. These limitations are also recognised in National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) and Septage Management: A Practitioner’s Guide, 2017.
As PUDR notes in its report:
The absence of official data serves as the best evasive response to questions of injustice. While the government basks in the glory of initiating a ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign, recognizing the right to sanitation of all except the rights of sanitation workers, initiatives such as these actually retrench practices of manual cleaning in the absence of shift to technological resources. Such initiatives rely on forms of manual labour by making them appear as economic choices.
In contrast, the monetary allotment for Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers reduced from Rs 4600 crore on its passing in 2013 to Rs. 5 crore in 2017. What’s worse, not a single rupee off these allotments was released by the present government. By August 2018, the government had not even spent the funds released by the previous UPA government for this purpose. (See also: 2019-20 SC-ST budget allocation only for accounting purposes and not for real implementation)

Improper urban planning

The report quotes the “Sewerage Master Plan of NCT” to note that only about 50% of the population of Delhi NCT is covered by the sewer network. This existing 7000 km sewerage network also suffers from disrepair, siltation and settling or collapse. The sewage generated by the other half of the population belonging to the unsewered areas—the part often found living in unauthorized colonies, JJ clusters, and rural villages—goes into Yamuna River through a number of surface drains. These areas tend to rely more on septic tanks which need regular cleaning to remove waste water and fecal sludge accumulation.

Thus, such a debilitated waste disposal structure creates the need to frequently clean the sewage systems and septic pipes, and this requirement is primarily met by hiring sanitation workers. As has been observed by the Centre for Policy and Research, high-risk sanitation work is also increasingly informalised—the deceased workers often had no institutional relationship with the owner of the infrastructure and were hired either by contractors responsible for infrastructure maintenance or on-the-spot for a specific job. While at least officially, maintenance of state sanctioned sewerage is supposed to be a public and municipal matter, septic tank maintenance is private responsibility, making their monitoring more difficult. Because sewage network connectivity is not properly constructed, it also means that Delhi’s 34 Waste Water Treatment Plants are only utilised upto about 57% of their official design capacity.

Consistent failure of legal implementation

One common thread among all law and policy directives chosen with a view to benefit sanitation workers is the consistent failure in their implementation. As PUDR states:
What makes these incidents significant is also the fact that they have been occurring repeatedly, apparently growing in frequency, at a time when the law (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) mandates that sending people to manually clean sewers, sewerage facilities and septic tanks without safety equipment, training and protection is a grave offence that carries stringent penalties. The Act has come to be better known through the frequency and impunity with which it is violated. Questions of lack of safety gear and absence of proper training of workers sent to clean sewers/septic tanks seems to dominate public discussion on the issue. Fundamental questions around whether manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks should be permitted or not, mostly evade the debates both in the law and outside.

While the 2013 Act has proven to be a significant improvement in the legal backing for the rights of sanitation workers, its biggest drawback is that while it defines cleaning of the sewers without safety gear and without safety precautions as hazardous, it does specify what can constitute ‘safety precautions’ and ‘safety gear’. This legislation notably does not recognise that, in most cases, the reason for death of sanitation workers is asphyxiation caused by exposure to poisonous gases. Such asphyxiation cannot be helped with gear and precautions.
Even in the Safai Karmachari Andolan case, it took the apex court twenty years (since the passing of the 1993 Act) to specify that sending persons in to manually clean sewers and septic tanks, closely handling waste materials can be included in the same category of violation as manual scavenging, and was a punishable act. It is also significant that continuous pressure had to be put upon the judiciary by the social movement of sanitation workers for their fundamental rights to be legally granted and underscored. The SC order in 2014 had asked the states to identify people who had died cleaning sewers 1993 onwards and award compensation to families. Over five years later, most states are yet to provide the data.
The crass disregard with which the government treats the issue of manual scavenging was exposed in 2015 when the Prime Minister’s lauded National Skill Development Mission listed manual scavenging as a possible ‘employment opportunity’ for people. (See this 2016 PUDR article)
National Commission for Safai Karmachari (NCSF) chairman M. Shivanna has directed local bodies and government departments to provide safety outfits to sanitation workers and to ensure that the workers wear them.

How complacence turns into casteism

Much has been said about the poor conditions faced by sanitation workers and how they reflect the continued indifference of the society at large. It is imperative to delve into how an incomplete understanding of the sanitation challenge can result into detrimental policy-making and implementation. The PUDR Report has contended the following points in this regard:
That Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan’s study from 2011 shows the perniciousness of caste nearly seventy years after the adoption of the Indian constitution. It stated that 94% of the sanitation workers who died were from Scheduled Castes, 4% were from Other Backward Classes and the rest from Scheduled Tribes. A few attempts to justify this deployment as traditional ‘ssuper-specialisation’ are made by authorities and dominant sections to relegate these hazardous and stigmatised jobs to these vulnerable communities. Such deployment of dalit workers in these occupations in modern contexts reinforces this link.
That the lack of attention to maintenance of sanitation systems is an absence which is completely caste driven, structural and systemic. There is no provision in the designing of these systems of sanitation (sewerage, septage etc.) that are crucial to the setting up and running of modern cities and towns, for their running and maintenance is also likewise not an innocent error but a systemic one. The policy makers’ fragmented approach to sanitation, their target driven approach (counting numbers of toilets, length of sewerage etc.,) and lack of attention to how the systems will run (whether or not there is water supply, and provision for maintaining toilets and sewers etc.), their neglect of and callousness towards who would do the work and how – are rooted in their deep acceptance of caste attitudes and hierarchy.
That even the NCSK, which was incorporated to protect the interests of the safai karamchari, recommended that mechanisation of sewer and septic tank cleaning should focus training those who are ‘traditionally’ engaged in sanitation work in its Annual Report of 2017-18. The Commission ‘strongly recommends’ that preference be given to the Valmiki community for the posts of safai karamchari as they have been ‘traditionally’ involved with the work.
Given the prevalent caste-based social attitudes towards the work of cleaning human and other wastes, the NCSK’s suggestions seem to reinforce the exclusive, indeed hereditary connection between these groups and the work of sanitation and cleaning wastes even if it is mechanized. Such interlinkages made between caste and identity result in workers remaining trapped in circumstances in which they have to keep performing unsafe and humiliating sanitation work, in spite of the heavy price they have to pay for it.

Is mechanisation the next step forward?

PUDR reports that some of the survivors of the discussed incidents were given machines for sewer cleaning by the state government in 2019. These machines, acquired at a cost of Rs. 40 lakhs each, are capable of negotiating narrow spaces, and work by “jetting” (the process of using a high pressure pump to remove different waste material), “grabbing” (hydraulically desilting the manhole) and rodding (rods rotating at high levels to remove the sludge).

Those given the machines, will be given the money earned from running the machines, directly into their accounts. The actual running of the machine will be done by private operators chosen through a process of tendering. Machine owners will be part of a consortium which will help others with the paperwork, working with the Delhi Jal Board (the authority handling waste management in Delhi) and sorting out problems with the running of machines. This consortium will be monitored by the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), an organization that promotes entrepreneurship among members of the Dalit community. The report notes that 200 machines have been acquired by Delhi government and 250 drivers and 500 helpers have been hired (who will all be paid minimum wages).

As has also been observed by other sources, the main problem with this model are that by making manual scavengers owners of the machines the policy ends up reinforcing caste, and linking the people with caste-based work more firmly. By passing on the responsibility of implementation to DICCI, the state is further reinforcing caste-based labour and the template of attitudes towards sanitation work that caste brings, and abrogating its own responsibility towards ensuring the rights and safety of sanitation workers. Thus, while mechanisation could be a temporary fix to the problem, it cannot not be tackled by making descendants of manual scavengers continue the same work in a different form.

Demands made

It is clear that it will take a lot more than loans and gleaming new machines to bring long-overdue justice to sanitation workers. The PUDR report has demanded specific actions from the state, which include due implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and the directives in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Others v. Union of India and Others; criminal accountability of employers guilty of compelling workers to clean sewers/septic tanks; direct responsibility for sewerage allotted to the state, etc.

It is important to note that the right to sanitation should not be sought to be provided at the cost of the basic fundamental rights of sanitation workers. We must factor in the repeated deaths of sewer/septic tank workers into the design of present and future sanitation policies and campaigns of ‘cleaning’ India. The underlying caste-based attitude to sanitation work and workers should be identified and strong action taken against it.



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