India’s deadly sewers

A sewer worker dies every third day in India


August 1, 2019

/ By / Kolkata

The workers are not even provided standard protective gears (courtesy: HT)

The workers are not even provided standard protective gears (courtesy: HT)

Even though manual scavenging was prohibited by the union government two decades ago, it still continues to be practiced in the states of India. According to a report 50 workers have died cleaning sewers in the first six months of 2019.

Last month seven people were reported to have died due to inhaling toxic fumes in the west-Indian state of Gujarat while they were cleaning a hotel sewer. This month three more labourers died of asphyxiation after entering to clean a septic tank without enough protective gear in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

According to a data released by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), the only agency in the country that maintains a record of manual scavenging deaths, nearly 50 workers have died while cleaning sewers in the first six months of 2019. This data though NCSK admits is an underestimate, as the data is based on reports submitted by only eight states– Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu– out of the 29 states and seven union territories of India that too have under-reported numbers, as several times the deaths are not confirmed by the state.

A media report points out three deaths since the start of this year till June 30 but twice as many workers have reportedly died during this time. Three workers employed to work at Delhi Jal Board sewage treatment plant died last month, but their deaths were not confirmed and therefore was not officially recorded by NCSK.

The Commission has recorded about 817 deaths of sewer workers since 1993 when the practice was banned in India. According to a data by NGO Safai Karmachari Andolan a sewage worker dies every third day in India. While the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) has been focusing on building toilets around India, little has been done on the eradication of manual scavenging or the safety of sanitation workers.

Despite the legal ban, the official estimates state that Tamil Nadu records the highest casualties with 210 deaths followed by Gujarat with 156 deaths, Uttar Pradesh 77 and Haryana 70 deaths. NCSK also stated that the “largest employer of safai karamcharis” is the railways, and the “problem of manual scavenging is nowhere as acute as it is in the Railways.”

Measures to be taken

In order to deal with the situation, Manhar Valjibhai Zala, chairperson of NCSK has suggested that the Prohibition of employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 needs to be amended and also make the principal bodies that employ manual scavengers such as the state government agencies and urban bodies responsible for the deaths along with their contractors who lack in ensuring basic standards and proper protection to be severely punished.

“I will write to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and ask for an amendment,” Zala said. “Also, the law allows workers to go in (sewers) if they wear a protective covering. Why should a Dalit worker have to enter the sewer in the first place? Deaths will not stop unless states and municipalities invest in mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.”

In an effort to save lives of the sewer cleaners, IIT Madras’s Centre for Non-Destructive Evaluation has come up with a gutter cleaning remote-controlled robot, dubbed Sepoy septic tank cleaner, as a safe alternative to clean the sewers. On the successful completion of the trials, this invention can be adapted on a large-scale as it also has a low-cost maintenance. The government should also bring in technology for mechanised cleaning of sewers to help the workers. They should also work on spreading awareness and take initiatives to completely eradicate the practice.

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