It’s a job that kills hundreds by the year, and yet, there’s a drastic increase in the number of manual scavengers in India. As per information obtained through RTI by a media house, there are 41,420 people in 14 states who work as manual scavengers in 2018. This is a drastic increase from the 14,505 manual scavengers identified across 13 states in 2013. Despite this rise, very little has been done till date to abolish the practice.
The onus has largely been on municipal corporations and urban local bodies, but instead of banning the practice in accordance with the law, efforts were taken to provide safety gear for people engaging in the activity, which, activists say, is akin to backdoor legalisation of the process. On August 16, the day after India celebrated its 73rd Independence Day, two sanitary workers died saving their friend who fainted inside a sewer line. None of them had ‘safety gear’. It’s at this juncture that the Centre has brought out its draft action plan to deal with the practice. On the outset, the plan makes several strong suggestions to end the practice.
The draft suggests an amendment to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, to make it mandatory for all urban local bodies to use only machines to clean sewers. The rule, if implemented, will also be applicable for private parties.
The draft also proposes an amendment to the Act to improve accountability. As per that, in the case of sewer deaths, charges will be pressed directly against senior-most authorities of local bodies, which could be a municipal commissioner or even a district magistrate. This is crucial because, till date, there is no data of a single person being convicted for engaging manual scavengers. The plan also aims to change the way in which government funds are made available for the purchase of cleaning machines. Numbers say more than 80% manual scavengers die before they turn 60, either by contracting diseases or ‘workplace accidents’. The draft plan is our last hope to ensure the safety of 40,000-odd people who keep India clean.