Ramesh Parmar, a safai kamgar or conservancy worker in Mumbai’s municipal corporation, died tragically about two weeks ago after consuming rat poison as an act of protest. He had been employed in his father’s job two years ago, but despite his fervent pleas, his salary was not paid even once during the pandemic. Parmar’s death highlights the plight of those at the bottom of the pyramid. Euphemistically called conservancy workers, thousands like Parmar clean choked sewers and clear overflowing toilets to keep our cities running. The fact that three Mumbai Corporation officials have been suspended for ‘negligence’ and Rs 1 lakh released to Parmar’s grieving family illustrates admission of guilt at the highest level.
Municipal corporations have institutionalised the practice of manual scavenging, a bane of Indian society for centuries. This is despite the government outlawing the use of direct human labour in the cleaning of sewage and septic tanks. Workers harnessed by ropes continue to descend into filthy sewage systems, often filled with human excreta. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, was brought in to eliminate insanitary latrines. The Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge, launched in 2020, was aimed at mechanising septic and sewage tank cleaning operations in 243 cities by April 2021. But things have obviously not changed much.
When repeated violation becomes a norm, we accept it as a necessary evil. Various conservancy departments, like Mumbai that employs 30,000 people, have institutionalised both caste and class discrimination. In Mumbai, as elsewhere, the safai kamgar is invariably a Dalit. He could be a Dusadh from Bihar or a Valmiki from UP; and what he faces is not only rampant exploitation with no defined salary or timings for work, but also the caste oppression of an unchanging system. While the Safai Kamgar Andolan says there are over 12 lakh manual scavengers in India, official surveys have largely underestimated the problem. It is difficult to eliminate the practice overnight in the informal sector, but one would expect municipal and government departments to be more proactive in ending this inhuman system.