Government in denial over manual scavenging deaths

Despite ban, no end in sight to manual scavenging

Politics

August 5, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Government in denial over manual scavenging deaths

As per a study by WaterAidIndia, one manual scavenger dies every five days (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Despite regular news reports of manual scavenging workers dying of asphyxiation, the government continues to live in denial, saying it has no data on manual scavenging deaths, instead of taking measures to prevent deaths in hazardous working conditions surrounding manual scavenging.

Last week, in response to outcry from activists over continuous deaths of manual scavengers, minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, told the Parliament that no deaths had taken place from manual scavenging, adding that there were only 66,692 registered manual scavengers in the country. The statement led to an outrage amongst the activists and the organisations that represent manual scavengers.

In the last session of the Parliament, on March 10, 2021, the minister had said pretty much the same thing. During the last session of Parliament, on March 10, Athawale had said, “No deaths due to manual scavenging has been reported. However, there have been reports of death of persons while cleaning sewers or septic tanks.” He said the practice had been abolished since 1993 and the government did not have any data on any such deaths subsequently.

Yet, in stark contrast to the abolition and word of leaders 472 deaths due to manual scavenging have been reported across the country between 2016 to 2020, and 26 alone in the year 2021 as elucidated by Bezawada Wilson, the national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan.

According to the Rehabilitation Research Initiative, that works for the upliftment of the oppressed, despite the ban on manual scavenging that was imposed in 2013, the practice is not only alive, but thriving. It estimates that there are over 1.5 million manual scavengers in India, with women constituting over 70 pc of the total workforce.

The large number of people being openly employed in an activity that is supposedly prohibited by law shows the failure of the government in implementation of the prohibition. Working in 3-5 m deep abyss of a septic tank, bursting with toxic gases and without any protective gear whatsoever and without any kind of health or life insurance, manual scavengers have to work for hours in an atmosphere without any sunlight or fresh air, the manual scavengers are expected to clean tanks filled to the brim with human faecal matter.

“It is not fair on the part of the government. When we kill these people, we must have the courage to say that it is due to some kind of mistake that we are going to prevent. The government is denying the fundamental right of dignity to these people and is not even counting the deaths. It is a modern form of untouchability – ignoring the life of a Dalit,”Bezawada Wilson, a leading activist for protecting rights of manual scavengers said in response to the statement by Athawale in the Parliament last week.

He shed light on the distress of those involved in this hazardous work in response to the Union minister’s earlier statement in which he conveyed specifically that deaths were not a result of manual scavenging. As per a study by WaterAidIndia, a non-profit organisation, one manual scavenger dies every five days, and women and girls particularly are the most vulnerable compared to their male counterparts. The study also brought to light the fact that the practice is relegated to lower caste dalits as underscored by Bezawada Wilson, turning out to be a serious violation of human rights that requires urgent attention of both the media and the government.

According to DownToEarth magazine, the official count on the number of manual scavengers saw a sharp decline from 770,338 in 2008 to 42,303 in 2018 (MIG photos/Aman Kanojiya)

“Recently two workers in Ghazipur had died while working in the sewers, and another two the next day in Vaishali. Though the High court has declared that no worker is to be allowed to work in such hazard, especially without protective gear still civic authorities and private contractors are paying no heed. The poor workers have no alternative and to sustain themselves are forced to take up this work. Seeing the rise in deaths, the high court has also mandated a compensation of one crore to the bereaved families but unfortunately no such action is taking place across the nation. Our organisation is at the forefront of many movements that seek to make the voice of these deprived people heard, and after we stir unrest amidst the public then only the government and the media comes to its senses and looks into the matter,” says Surender Singh, who is a leader of the organisation Rashtriya Valmiki Sena.

Ashok, who is an unemployed youth, works as a manual scavenger in South Delhi’s Khanpur area, says that the employers don’t provide even basic safety gear to the manual scavengers, leave alone advanced equipment like oxygen tanks. “We don’t have any facility to protect ourselves while doing this job. Often large pieces of glass get stuck to our legs and hands while cleaning. We have repeatedly requested our contractor to provide us with boots and gloves, so that while working we can avoid any form of serious injury but, who pays the slightest heed to our cry. If something happens to me who will feed my children and wife.”

This is the story of millions of manual scavengers in India who are made to work tirelessly in such hazard with bare income in return, and the government too turning a blind eye to the issue thus, no such schemes or opportunities being generated as an alternative for these most deprived sections of the Indian society.

This shows the unwillingness of the government to aid or even recognise the daily torment that those employed as manual scavengers have to live through. This is more so, in the time of the Covid-19 as employment opportunities have witnessed a drastic decline over a year pushing many to this hazardous occupation. As per MCD data, around 2400 sanitation workers have died before reaching the retirement age between the years 2013 and 2017. The causes of the deaths have been attributed to many health problems other than work-related hazards.

The government calls the deaths occurring due to manual scavenging as that caused by the “hazardous cleaning of septic tanks and sewers’’. Though in 2018, a ray of hope came into view, for the first time, when the Delhi government acknowledged the existence of manual scavengers in the city. This was as per an incomplete survey conducted in only two of the eleven districts. The reason behind the incomplete survey as explained by the social welfare department of the government was because manual scavengers cannot be officially engaged, adding to the lack of data they further said that deaths occurred due to lapses by the many third-party cleaning agencies.

The lack of safety gear for the workers exacerbates their predicament of working in storm water drains and sewer lines in which they are made to enter by private contractors and civic bodies to clean off blockages. The general secretary of the united front of MCD employees association, Rajendra Mewati, asserts that the practise is prevalent where the cleaning machines are unable to access.

In slums where there are jhuggis that includes the very residence of those involved in manual scavenging, all the excreta tends to clog nullahs there and those people are meant to clean it. Even polythene is separated by hand by the workers without the least of safety gears like gumboots.

According to DownToEarth magazine, the official count on the number of manual scavengers saw a sharp decline from 770,338 in 2008 to 42,303 in 2018. However, the drop was due to poor data quality rather than a real drop in number of people employed in this profession. Moreover, with the pandemic having cost hundreds of millions of jobs, thousands of people may have taken up the task of manual scavenging for the want of any other option to make some money, irrespective of the risks involved in the job. Ashok, the scavenger from South Delhi, says he took up scavenging only a few months ago just so that he could feed his family. He adds that there were several other cases identical to his and that more people were turning to this job, knowing fully well the risks involved. They may not exist on paper or the government may continue to pretend that there are no manual scavengers in the country, driven by desperation this dance with death is likely to continue for a long while to come.

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