As India looks forward to becoming a USD 5 trillion economy, the condition of sewage workers is still down the drain. On June 27, a worker almost drowned in a naala (open drain) filled with excrement and sludge in Tilak Nagar. Fortunately, he was saved by another worker. This was recorded on a mobile phone, and an application was filled by Virender Singh Churiyana, President of Dilli Safai Karamchari Action Committee. This occurred a day after four workers died in Rohtak, Haryana, while attempting to clear a blocked pump in a storm-water disposal tank. Prior to this, on June 15, seven suffocated to death in a hotel sewer in Vadodara, Gujarat.
Despite the enactment of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR 2013) in India, the inhuman practices of engaging workers as manual scavengers continue. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of India 2011 identified 1.82 lakh manual scavengers across the country. In 2018, an inter-ministerial task force found that over 53,000 people practiced manual scavenging in 121 out of over 600 districts in India.
Gulshan, 35, who lives in Sultanpuri and pays Rs 3,000 a month for a rented room, has been working as a part-time sewer cleaner for the past 16 years. “I work for private contractors, who don’t employ proper machines. We use rods or sticks to check how deep the open drains are before we enter them,” says Gulshan, who works six days a week on a daily wage of Rs 300-400.
There are no safety gears available, he informs, adding, “If the drains are deep, we get a safety belt or a rope. But for all the other chores on the job, we do it with our bare hands.” With no safety equipment, Gulshan tries his best to be safe, since he supports a wife and three children who live in Rohini. He even stopped drinking alcohol for this reason. “Many drink to deal with the stench. But drinking and working make the job riskier. So, I don’t drink.”
Churiyana feels that the Tilak Nagar incident was the result of not implementing the guidelines laid down by the law. He says, “Sanitation workers are scared to raise their voice and even if they do, it dies down in a couple of days due to cumbersome legal procedures. No one in this sector is really concerned, and so their exploitation continues.”
For a better understanding of the plight of manual scavengers, WaterAid India organised a talk Including the Excluded: Unpacking Challenges and Framing Solutions for Manual Scavengers and Sanitation Workers in India on June 28 at India Habitat Centre. It culminated into a brainstorming session between civil societies, research institutions, multilateral organisations, activists and a government official. Extracts from the talk:
Law, governance and the issue of inclusion and exclusion
After 71 years of Independence, the question that arises is why despite the law, budget and conversations at various levels, manual scavenging continues in the form it does. “Manual scavenging is a reflection of how deeply embedded the idea of caste is in our society,” said Harsh Mander, Director of Centre for Equity Studies.
“Caste is something that you are accidentally born into, which determines the rest of your life but not the qualities you have or your hard work. We need to recognise that manual scavenging continues because people born into a particular caste. Also, we have extreme cultural anxiety with three physiological processes that are universal: death, excreta and menstruation. All of them are seen as intensely polluted and anybody whose job is to clean up the consequences of these three are seen as highly polluted,” said Mander, who observes that as we are modernising cities, we are still not bothered what happens once we flush our toilets, where does the faecal wastes go and who ultimately cleans it up and under what inhumane living conditions.
The only public reform Mander wants to advocate is the personal culpability of public officials for their failure. “Having been part of the IAS, I know that if I was a Civil Servant, I have every resource and authority to end manual scavenging, save people from dying of malnutrition and the continued hate violence, in my jurisdiction. So, the public official, in whose jurisdiction these are allowed to continue, should be criminally punished. Otherwise, we can keep on making laws and nothing will change.”
The way forward
After 35 years of raising this issue, the responsibility of solutions to manual scavenging still falls back upon the community which is not healthy for the country and the democracy, said Bezwada Wilson, an Indian activist and a Founder and the National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). “What is the point of having such a skilful scientific community, bureaucracy and leadership if this pathetic situation of such a vulnerable community could not be addressed?” Wilson points out that technology alone cannot be a solution. Solutions also need to be human-centred. “We need to eradicate the caste system and identify the scavengers.”
Present at the convention was Rajendra Pal Gautam, the Minister for Social Welfare and Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Government of NCT of Delhi. Addressing the issue, he said, “Not one year has passed where death incidents of manual scavengers have not been reported. But municipal bodies still report the absence of manual scavenging. Delhi government is open to exploring and investing in technology options that can prevent this inhuman practice.”
In the end, Raman VR, Head of Policy at WaterAid India said, “Governments at different levels should identify and deploy new and improved measures and assistive technologies for ensuring sanitation and cleanliness in our urban and rural areas, ensuring decent work, safety, health, dignity and equity of the workers involved.
Alongside the talk, photographer Sudharak Olwe who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016, presented his photographs of the inhuman conditions manual scavengers in India work in. The photographs were a result of his travels across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for about two decades. “I didn’t want to shoot these pictures initially but the issue is so big and people have turned a blind eye. So, it becomes impossible for me to photograph them and not do anything about it,” said Olwe, adding,
“Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have invested in this issue to uphold human dignity and safety issues to the highest. But, I found no substantial change in the working methods of manual scavengers and sanitation workers in our country while documenting their lives, despite the overall technological advancements in the last 20 years.” The exhibition is on till July 4 at Open Palm Court Gallery, IHC.