NEW DELHI: The National Safai Karamchari Andolan protested the deaths of sewer workers in the capital at Jantar Mantar on Tuesday.
Six men died in Delhi while cleaning sewage and septic tanks in two incidents this month. There have also been reports of five people dying of asphyxiation while cleaning septic tanks in Chhattisgarh.
Talking of the protest, B Wilson from the National Safai Karamchari Andolan said the safai karamcharis had come together and the families of sewer workers who had died cleaning septic tanks had become more aware of their rights. They now recognised that it was the state's responsibility to provide rehabilitation. The message sent out was that it was a people's cause and people would need to come together to stop the deaths.
"Despite losing their family member, they came out to protest. They understand the state is not doing a favour but has a responsibility to give them rehabilitation," said Wilson.
The protest has also mobilised members of the public, who have responded spontaneously to the protests. "It is a national problem now and people have started talking about it more," said Wilson.
Beena Pallical from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights said the protest also symbolised that the government needed to be accountable for the deaths. "It is unfortunate that even in the 21st century we are talking of sewer deaths. It is time for the government to break its silence on the issue and take accountability of the deaths. If you maintain silence on an issue, it means you are complicit in it," said Pallical.
The National Commission for Scheduled Castes chairperson, Ram Shankar Katheria, said the Commission had conducted a ground survey of the spot where five people died. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act outlaws hazardous cleaning of sewers or septic tanks. However, poor implementation remains at the heart of the government's inability to stop sewer deaths, said NGOs.