India has had a terrible past handcuffed by the rigid caste system. Our caste system is one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of social stratification to exist. After almost 74 years of independence and more than 71 years of existence of the Indian Constitution, there still exist practices of stigmatisation of marginalised communities and under-reporting of crimes against them.
Data revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which is responsible for gathering data for different crimes in the country, mentions that not only has the crime rate against Dalits shot up, but the conviction has also declined considerably.
Why Is It In Spotlight Again?
In Hyderabad, two men, Shiva aged 25 years and Anthaiah, aged 45 years, were compelled to clean a flood pipeline manually. The two died due to asphyxiation during the process. While Shiva's body was recovered on the day of the incident itself, it took six days for the authorities to trace the body of Anthaiah. Anthaiah's family was a part of the Mala Community.
This community is counted under the Scheduled Caste (SC). His family told The NewsMinute that the officials acted indifferently with them because of their marginalised caste. Anthaiah's son Nagarjun said that the officials were tremendously negligent and did not take appropriate steps to find his father's body.
On the other hand, the municipality officials said they dug up the entire pipeline and searched in the nearby lake, but all efforts went in vain.
What Are The Rules For Manual Scavengers?
Under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act of 2013, the Government has banned manual scavenging. In 2013, an amendment was made in the already existing 1993 law that mandated punishment in the event of engaging any person in the unsafe practice of cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In 2014, Supreme Court had ordered all the states and the union territories to pay a compensation of 10 lakh to the families of all those who died while cleaning sewers.
A survey on sewers cleaners showed that 49 per cent of them suffered from breathing difficulty, cough and pain in the chest. Moreover, nearly 11 per cent suffered from skin infections like dermatitis and eczema. Lack of appetite is a common problem faced by them. Almost 32 per cent of them confirmed that their constant and prolonged contact with sewer water and faecal sludge cause ear infections, burning sensation in the eyes and bad eye-sight. The court had asked all state governments to fully eradicate the practice of manual scavenging and take remedial action against such violators.
Traditionally, only people from the lowest of the castes are associated with performing such duties. In India, Dalits have been tasked to clean sewages and drains manually. In 2011, the Social Economic and Caste Census had recorded that more than 1,80,000 families reported at least one member working as a sanitation worker. A total of 376 sanitation workers have died from 2014 to 2019. In 2019 itself, 110 people died, which was a 61 per cent increase from the previous year. Sadly, there is no record of convictions for the same.
Despite several laws enforced by the Government and orders passed by the Supreme Court, the supposedly illegal profession of manual scavenging appears to worsen and to engulf thousands every year. The story of India's ambitious plans hits a roadblock when the word 'manhole' appears. It is high time that we start replacing it with the term 'machine-hole' to make the change more acceptable.
What Are Other Countries Doing?
While it's good to look at our neighbours to learn new things, in this case, our neighbours are not doing much better either. Manual scavenging is prevalent in neighbouring Pakistan as well. For instance, a man had fainted while cleaning a septic tank in the country, but the doctor denied touching his 'dirty body' when he was taken to the hospital. Bangladesh, too, is amidst a ravaging sanitation crisis. It depends on cleaning septic tanks and sewage manually.
The Dhaka Water Supply and Sewage Department released data that mentioned that only 20 per cent of the city is served with a piped sewer network. The city relies heavily on contractors and individuals to remove the sludge from the septic tanks.
It's time India's 'developing' country looks up to other countries to roadmap a better sewage disposal system. For instance, sewage management in Malaysia has come a long way in sixty years. From manual ways in primitive years to advanced automated systems, it's a lesson that we need to learn.
This has been possible in the island-nation of Malaysia through the development of technology. The extensive discarding process of non-technical ways and adopting advanced and technologically forward methods has made a difference. However, such a transformation is impossible without political will.
Taking Corrective Measures To Save Lives
This puts us to think that technical solutions are indeed available for us to deploy. In 2018, a machine costing 43 lakh was launched on World Toilet Day by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The Government should launch a 24x7 helpline for the sanitation workers and provide health schemes to the marginalised sections.
The Union Government offered ₹ 52 crore reward and 'challenged' state governments to make the practice of 'scavenging' obsolete and deploy machines for de-sludging sewages and septic tanks instead of humans.
Manual scavenging is a mirror image of India's rigid caste system and social inequalities. Primarily the Indian Government uses the technique of employing contractors and issuing tenders, which dodges them the responsibility of deaths caused due to manual scavenging.
The Union Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry drew a sharp reaction from social activists after it issued a statement in the Parliament stating no manual scavenging deaths were reported in India. Despite the alarming number of cases, the Government does not categorise deaths under the head of manual scavenging. There have been deaths reported while cleaning sewers.
There is a need to consciously make an effort not to tread down the same path we have been doing for ages. The most crucial step would be to recognise the mistake that we have unapologetically committed over the years. The next step would be to take corrective measures to save the lives that have not yet been thrown into the face of 'never talked about reality.