53,598 Manual Scavengers identified, yet employers never convicted


“The manual carrying of human faeces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery,” said a 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. According to National Commission of Safai Karamchari (NCSK) on an average one person dies every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country.

Safai karamchari andolan which was established in 1995 for the eradication of manual scavenging estimated that between 2014 and 2016, around 1500 people have died due to manual scavenging. According to the 2011 Socio-Economic and Case Census, 1,82,505 rural households in India are still dependent on manual scavenging for income.

Manual Scavenging is a practice of manually cleaning the human excreta from the dry latrines, septic tanks, manholes and open drains. Manual Scavengers use their bare hands to collect the excreta by crawling into the dry latrines. They have to go down in a narrow congested passage to clean the drains manually. A caste and hereditary based profession which is passed from one generation to another has constantly targeted one single community.

The dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging, arising from the continuous existence of unsanitary and untreated latrines and grossly unfair caste system is still prevalent in our country and the main issues faced by the manual scavengers are:

  • Low Pay
  • Caste based Discrimination
  • Prejudice against the sewage workers
  • Poor knowledge of existing laws
  • Lack of occupational safety measures
  • Health Issues
  • Apathy of government agencies

As quoted by a report of the HRW, “For people who practice manual scavenging, untouchability and social exclusion are inextricably linked…Those that practice manual scavenging are routinely denied access to communal water sources and public places of worship, prevented from purchasing goods and services, excluded from community religious and cultural events and subjected to private discrimination from upper-caste community members.”

In 1993, an act was passed to prohibit the practice of manual scavenging; The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. Despite a ban on manual scavenging, the death rate of sanitation workers while cleaning septic tanks and sewers has only risen, with 620 cases reported since 1993. Report also suggests, 88 of these deaths occurred in the past three years.

A Supreme Court order from March 27, 2014 makes it mandatory for the government to identify all those who died in sewerage work since 1993 and provide Rs 10 lakh each as compensation to their families. To a question by MPs Asaduddin Owaisi and Syed Imtiaz Jaleel, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister of State Ramdas Athawale told the Lok Sabha that the 445 cases have been given the compensation and 58 cases have been partially settled, while 117 cases were still pending. What's more worrying is the fact that even 620 reported deaths could not make the government realize that its responsibility is not just to pay for the compensations, but to actually prevent the deaths of manual scavengers.

The question has been coined by the MPs, directed at the government over whether it planned on amending the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 in order to make it mandatory for States to report such cases. In response, the Minister said there was no proposal to amend it as of now.

Why is it not a concern for the government that many states are not reporting the incidents of deaths of manual scavengers? Is the government afraid that if it makes it mandatory for the states to report such incidents, then the actual numbers can go higher?

In another reply to a question by MP Vishnu Dayal Ram, the minister told the Lok Sabha that 53,598 manual scavengers had been identified from December 6, 2013 till June 30, 2019. While the Act says no one can employ a person for manual scavenging and lays down punishments for those who do, the minister said, “There have been no reports from any state/Union Territory regarding conviction in such cases”.

The government knows the number of manual scavengers, but they won't punish the persons employing them despite the ban put on this practice by the Act. So is the Act just a token representation of how the government cares for the people belonging to lower castes?

While legally manual scavenging is banned in India, but socially it is still in practice. This reminds me of BR Ambedkar's last address to the Constituent Assembly on 25th November 1949. In his last address he said, "On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality."

The acceptance of manual scavenging by the Indian society is evident of the fact that the values of the Constitution are still limited to its pages. Every time a man steps down into the sewer, it is a page of constitution which goes down with him. Either it never comes back or it comes back with the words strangled to death by the sewer. We must reject this practice before there are no pages left in the Constitution and no words left on the pages.

—Yashi Verma describes herself as a poet who also happens to be a law student at Amity Law School, Delhi.