The plight of Manual Scavenging has no full stop

Manual Scavenging
Manual Scavengers working under hazardous condition. Photo: Palani Kumar

The non-availability of data with the government agencies poses a serious concern which aggravates the problem.

Sai Charan Natarajan

Chennai:  It was the first in the day, for S.Rajesh, who got a call to rectify the sewage block in a residential apartment near Tambaram. Rajesh, a manual scavenger, just had breakfast with his co-worker M.Ezhumalai and together set off to do their work.

Rajesh usually gets a call from T.Jai, his friend, every morning to have a conversation about the day’s work. That day when Rajesh got a call, both of them didn’t have a clue that it will be their last conversation.

According to Jai, that day, Rajesh and Ezhumalai, both removed a load of sewage from the septic tank and went back again the next day to finish the work. The suction tube got blocked inside the septic tank and Ezhumalai went inside to clear it with a rod.

Ezhumalai fainted inside the tank because of suffocation. Since there was no response from the tank for a long time, Rajesh went inside to check and he also fainted by inhaling the poisonous gases emitted from the septic tank. Later, the fire and rescue department entered the septic tank and attempted to rescue them, but were declared brought dead at Royapettah Government General Hospital.

Jai, who also used to get inside the manholes to clean blockages, was shocked because of this incident. “I never knew poisonous gases will come out of the drainage system, now I lost my dear friend,” said Jai. “What if I would have died and who will take care of my family,” mumbled Jai, fighting back tears.

“Deaths happen because of the emission of methane. Anaerobic fermentation is the chemical breakdown of waste materials by bacteria and other microorganisms in the absence of air. The byproduct of this reaction is the poisonous methane gas which settles down due to its higher density than air”

Dr S Ramakrishnan, a Biochemistry Professor at Annamalai University.

As per the National Rural Sanitation survey 2017, the twin pit system which has septic tanks with soak pits doesn’t require manual cleaning. The single pit system where human handling of faecal matter becomes inevitable and the availability of suctions pumps through mechanical extraction is also less.

According to section 2(1)(g) of the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act, Manual Scavenging is defined as cleaning, carrying or handling of human excreta from insanitary latrines, open drains, pits or in railway lines.

In an RTI response to the question of “how many trains across the country are fitted with bio-toilets” by Egalitarians, a Not for Profit voluntary collective, the Railway Ministry responded that “All the passenger trains in the country is fitted with bio-toilet facility”.

Commenting on this RTI response K Jakkaiyan, state committee member of Tamil Nadu scavengers welfare board, said “This data given by the Railway Ministry is not true. Railway is one of the major employers of manual scavengers and we are working hard to get rid of this practice.”

The Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act bans ‘hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks’. However, it defines hazardous as manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligation to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions.

“This is a loophole in the act and this paves the way for government and the general public to employ manual scavengers,” said Jakkaiyan. “Plastics and other sludge get stuck in the small pipes that connect the households with the underground drainage. In order to get rid of that block, manual scavengers are forced to enter into the manholes.”

Last year, during the winter session of the Parliament, In response to an unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha regarding the death of manual scavengers, Union Minister State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale said that “No deaths have been reported due to people engaging in Manual Scavenging however, 321 people have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks during the last five years.”

Commenting on this, Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan(SKA),  a movement that aims to eradicate manual scavenging in India, said “The government never collects data properly. Even in the NCRB there is no data. SKA is documenting all the data and we know the ground reality.”

“Parliament is happy to discuss issues which are fancy and reducing this issue to something which is impure. Since manual scavengers are not politically significant in numbers the government is not focusing them even for electoral politics.”

Bezwada Wilson

Safai Karmachari Andolan recorded the data of the number of people who died because of manual scavenging across the country. As many as 920 such cases were recorded in India between 1993 to 2020, out of which 206 deaths were reported in Tamil Nadu, which is the highest in the nation.

Statistic: Number of manual scavenger deaths in Indian states between January 1993 and January 2020 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

There is also a caste conundrum that is intrinsically intertwined with the practice of manual scavenging. The government data shows that 74% of the people engaged in manual scavenging are from the Scheduled Castes. Arunthathiyars, Kaatunayakars in Tamil Nadu, Valmikis in Uttar Pradesh, Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, Banke in Odisha and Gujarat, Rellis in Karnataka are some of the Scheduled Castes engaged in manual scavenging across India.

The data released by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment shows that 58,098 people are involved in manual scavenging in India. Uttar Pradesh with 55.89% of the total has the highest number.

“Why only the Social Justice minister has to answer when a question is asked in Parliament regarding this issue? Why Prime Minister and Home Minister are silent on this issue. They are answering all other questions but why not this? Is it because this issue is more related to Dalits and Minister also a Dalit, he only has to answer?” asked Wilson.

The government is implementing a Central Sector scheme called the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers to rehabilitate individuals involved in cleaning drains and septic tanks. It involves one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to each manual scavenger, skill development training and cash subsidy up to Rs 5 lakh for those who avail loans for self-employment projects. 

But, consistently there is a huge gap between the budgetary estimates and the revised estimates for the scheme. In the recent 2022-2023 budget, the fund allocated for this scheme was reduced by 30 crores from the previous year. Wilson tweeted about this reduction in the budget as a “denial of rights”.