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Manual scavengers: Between reality and fiction 

This year witnessed the death of 10 manual scavengers in Delhi, following which the government announced compensation for their families and finally took the decision of banning manual scavenging in the city, writes Sayantan Ghosh.

Chotu, a 35-year-old man clad in just a shabby pair of shorts finished his last drag of bidi before going down into a drain of New Ashok Nagar. He had a rope, an iron rod, a steel bucket and few other instruments to clean the drain. He has a name in this area for cleaning drains, septic tanks and other sanitary works. He is not the only one in the Capital, but there are several more manual scavengers across the city.

This year witnessed the death of 10 such manual scavengers in Delhi. The government announced compensation for their families and finally took the decision of banning manual scavenging in the city. However, experts are of the opinion that the issue needs more social awareness than political awareness.
Who are manual scavengers?
Traditionally in India sewerage work is a caste based occupation. The socio-economic caste census of 2011 showed that 180,657 households in India were engaged in this profession. According to the data, Maharashtra topped the list with 63,713 manual scavengers followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.
Various caste oriented research showed that these labourers are Dalits, the lowest caste in the Hindu religions. Generally, the Balmiki and Hera caste are associated with this work in India. Importantly, these subcastes within Dalits are considered as the lowest, and historically in India, these lower castes were labelled as the untouchables.
Bezwada Wilson, the Ramon Magsaysay award winner activist and Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan said, "Traditionally only untouchables were supposed to do these jobs and after so many years still that is the scene across India." According to him, the deaths of manual scavengers are nothing new since it has been happening for many years. Wilson opined that none of the political parties ever wanted to stop this practice and just neglected the issue. "If the government wants to stop it then it can be done within a day but nobody cares about them," Wilson told Millennium Post.
Laws for manual scavenging in India:
In the years 1993, the Narasimha Rao led government took the resolution to ban this work and passed a law. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition act 1993) was passed by the Union Government and many states passed the same resolution. But, it was just merely a law in pen and paper, the implementation of this Act never happened properly and the system never stopped existing. Ten years later in 2013, another law was passed, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013.
This made the work illegal and it also has a provision of punishment for the contractors who employ these labourers. However, the employment of manual scavengers continued. According to reports, nearly 27 manual scavengers work in the Capital even today. From 1994 to 2017 nearly 77 manual scavengers have died in Delhi.
Contractors and manual scavenging:
Experts noted that the contract businesses are the main reason for the existence of this practice. In Delhi, there is a number of contractors who employ these labourers but do not provide them with the minimum safety precautions.
The manual scavengers who work full-time with the municipalities of Delhi get Rs 15-20 thousand per month, whereas the contractual labourers get nearly Rs 200-300 per month. "It is a big business where the contractors utilise the poverty of these people and employ them with minimum money," said Narain Das, secretary of National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. He added that in a big city like Delhi sewerage cleaning problem occurs every day and people look for an immediate solution. The contractors take advantage of this need. "To ban manual scavenging we have to ban the contractor business," Das said.
According to experts, nearly 100 contractors are present in Delhi who stay in direct touch with the civic bodies and sometimes without informing the authority employ the manual scavengers.Health hazards:
Most of these labourers die due to the toxic gases they inhale inside the sewerage and without the help of any protection or equipment. Experts explained that most of the family members of these labourers died due to the same reason. Every month or two these workers get hospitalised due to breathing toxic gases. "There are many health hazards which these people are aware of, but there is no alternative for them. In most cases they are the only bread winners of the family and contractors keep provoking them to work," said activist Bezwada Wilson.
The civic bodies of the city do not provide any health aid to these workers. They are also not entitled to any economic benefit. In most cases, the civic bodies do not provide any compensation even when the workers die.
Delhi government's fight for the issue:
The Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam who also holds the portfolio of the water department is working for the empowerment of these labourers. The department has announced a complete ban on manual scavenging and also issued an order against the contractors. The government approached the Lt Governor Anil Baijal to direct the police to arrest the contractors responsible for the recent deaths. The police have arrested contractors and also some engineers of the Delhi Jal Board for alleged connection with the contractors.
The L-G directed 100% mechanisation of manual scavenging, while Minister Rajendra Gautam approached some organisations like Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI) to fund these manual labourers to buy the equipment, using which they can continue the profession but without physically doing the work. CM Arvind Kejriwal has approved the plan.
Taking inspiration from Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB), Delhi government might put to use the specially designed mini-jetting machines developed in Hyderabad. There are talks of studying the drainage and sewage system of the city to decide whether the mini-jetting machines can be used or new models must be developed for cleaning sewage as an alternative to manual scavenging.
With the new plan of providing aid and equipment, people like Chotu may get a better life with an assurance of much better health.
Global scenario
Faecal sludge management (FSM) is a management system that safely collects, transports, and treats fecal sludge (also called septage) from pit latrines, septic tanks or other onsite sanitation facilities (OSSF). This method is used in most developed countries and is being implied in some developing countries as a safe and an alternative method to manual scavenging. The process is applied through out Europe and North America, Australia, New Zealand and some other countries currently.
We have plans to create entrepreneurs out of manual scavengers : Rajendra Pal Gautam

Rajendra Pal Gautam, Minister of water, social welfare, SC/ST welfare used to be an advocate by profession. An Ambedkarite by principle, an activist by nature and an aam admi in everyday life, Gautam has become the Cabinet Minister of Delhi recently. In conversation with Sayantan Ghosh he explains how he plans to give manual scavengers of the city a much-dignified life.
It has been a week Delhi government has banned manual scavenging; what is the status report thereafter?
The government, civic bodies and the Delhi Jal Board are continuously monitoring the matter. We are not allowing anyone to go inside the drains and work. I have directed the concerned people to black list the contractors who force poor people to do this work.
As per law, manual scavenging is illegal but the city witnessed 10 deaths of poor labourers in the last two months. Why did it happen?
It is unfortunate that we have failed. Though most of these cases took place in private areas and do not come under the government, we cannot avoid our responsibility. The problem is political, legal and also social in nature. These people are very poor and the contractors take advantage of their poverty.
Delhi government ordered 100% mechanisation of the sewage work. Would you please elaborate its meaning?
Well, that means the work of sewerage cleaning will happen through machines and no one will do the work manually by going down into the drains.
If this happens then the poor labourers will lose their job, who will take their responsibility?
We will take the responsibility to present them a dignified life and it is our duty. I have consulted with the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI) and some other organisations too, they will help us to fund these labourers to buy the equipment and do the same work but by machines.
How do you think the labourers will buy the machines; where will they get such huge amounts money?
To solve this issue DICCI will coordinate with the banks who will give loans to these labourers and in minimum interest. I have asked DICCI to arrange reduction of loans too. For this matter, this month I am going to Hyderabad to meet DICCI officials and in some days we will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). My aim is to make these labourers successful entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship of manual scavengers, do you think it will really happen?
Why not? In a city like Delhi, sewerage problem is the everyday thing. Now if we provide the equipment to these workers and teach them how to operate them then they will use those machines. They will do the same work with the machines which have no risk and get a dignified life, that is the whole plan.
But to execute this plan you need an approval from the government; what is the status there?
The DICCI officials and I have met the Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal and presented our plan. He is very happy with the plan and has asked us to go ahead. He has also assured full support from the cabinet.
What is the government's plan for giving compensation to the families of labourers who died recently?
We have given them Rs 10 lakh compensation. The government has given compensation to the labourers' families who died while working in the DJB drain. I directed the mall authority to give the same compensation to the workers who died inside the drain of a shopping mall, and they have followed. The case which took place in LNJP hospital occurred in a PWD drain and the concerned department has given the compensation.
How are you planning to reach out to these people?
The government, civic bodies and the DJB will start city wide awareness programs, where we will reach these people and demonstrate our plan. This plan is for them and we have to reach them.
What kind of legal initiative is the government taking?
The 2013 law is very clear and we are implementing that. If any official or contractor use these labourers, they will be punished. The police arrested a DJB engineer for the death of two workers in Lajpat Nagar. In other cases, police arrested the contractors. We need all the support from the police, civic bodies, the government and most importantly the citizens of Delhi to overcome this malpractice. I can tell you that we will get success and we will present them a much better life. The idea of making them entrepreneurs will be a milestone in this fight all over India.

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