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Tragedy In Tamil Nadu
A couple of days back, a 19 year old teen lost his life to manual scavenging while trying to unblock a sewer line in Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. It was the second such incident in the state within a week. Before that, four people lost their life due to being asphyxiated in a similar task. The police have arrested three people in connection with the latter incident.
In both the incidents, it was reported that the workers had no safety gear on. However, it is contested by the municipality officials and they further claim that these deaths were due to accidents and not due to non-adherence to procedures.
Despite the passing of THE PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT AS MANUAL SCAVENGERS AND THEIR REHABILITATION ACT, 2013, by the Indian Parliament more than two years back, the practice continues unabated in major cities across the country. It replaced an earlier act enacted in 1993, which had proved to be ineffective and had not seen a single conviction in 20 years.
The Key Provisions Of The New Act Included:
- Prohibition of employment of people as manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and the construction of insanitary latrines.
- Rehabilitation of manual scavengers as well as their families and providing for their alternative employment.
- Mandatory conversion or demolition of insanitary latrines by the owner himself. If he fails to do so, the local authority will convert it and recover the cost from the owner.
- Offences under it to be cognizable and non-bailable and may be tried summarily. Moreover, it provides for harsher punishments (upto 5 years for repeat offences) and higher penalties as compared to the previous act.
- No person, local authority or any agency shall engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. In fact, it will be their duty to use modern technology to clean sewers, septic tanks and other spaces within their control.
Take the case of Mumbai for example, which The Logical Indian also exemplified some months back. 30,000 people are employed as ‘conservancy workers’ by the Mumbai administration to unclog sewer lines with the use of their hands and some primitive tools. Due to the continuous exposure to poisonous gases, 20 sewer workers die each month and 80% die before they reach 60, a study by Tata institute of Social Sciences showed. The only thing they can do to safeguard themselves against these toxic gases is to lower a candle in the manhole to know if there is sufficient oxygen for them to enter it.
The problem is far from being city-specific. The Socio-economic caste census released in 2015 shows that as many as 1, 80,657 households are engaged in this degrading work for a livelihood. Maharashtra (63,713) tops the list with the largest number of manual scavenger households, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka. A common feature is the denial of the existence of manual scavenging by the state and city administrations all across the country. The numbers are enormous, but have reduced when compared to the roughly 8 lakh people engaged in the activity as per the 1961 census. In 2014, Supreme Court noted that – “Of these (people employed as manual scavengers), over 95% are Dalits who are compelled to undertake this denigrating task under the garb of ‘traditional occupation’. The manual scavengers are considered as untouchables by other mainstream castes and are thrown into a vortex of severe social and economic exploitation”.
A Grim Situation For The Manual Scavengers
Despite the enactment of sever laws, to end it is not so easy. For instance, several women in villages who sought to leave manual scavenging told Human Rights Watch that local authorities failed to intervene when they faced threats from the households they served. As a punishment for leaving the job, they were denied access to community land and resources or threatened with eviction, sometimes even with the backing of village councils and other officials. Threats of violence are also a reality for people thinking of giving up the act. In cities, local government officials themselves employ people to work as manual scavengers. Those who carry out these jobs say they are resigned to their fate due to their lack of education. But a casteist society, an indifferent administration and political class also aid to the continuation of the dehumanization of the sewer workers.
A Welcome Step By The Ministry
Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawar Chand Gehlot said in July 2015 that 2500 manual scavenger families, who clean human excreta with bare hands, had been identified so far. He added, “The government has given these families Rs. 40,000 aid money and is also given them skills training so that they can pursue alternative jobs. The Safai Karmachari Vitt Vikas Nigam is also extending credit to them so they can go for permanent jobs. We have started intervention work in Lucknow, Haridwar and Varanasi, and will be extending intervention to other States.”
The Logical Indian appreciated the work initiated by the honourable minister in this regard, but also disappointingly notes that the effort is too little and too slow. As a National Advisory Council resolution in 2010 noted – “Manual scavenging is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability”. Clearly, more needs to be done in this regard to remove this blot.