By Eetika Kapoor
Thirty-nine lives were claimed within 100 days across India. The victims fell prey to manual scavenging and the Indian administration is eerily silent about it. The Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and the founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson, is exasperated by the pitiable state of the Manual Scavenging Act 2013. Highlighting authority negligence, he claims to have submitted 56 documents to the concerned officials regarding the rehabilitation and compensation of the manual scavengers, but to no avail. Unsanitary toilets, the sheer shortage of sanitary health inspectors, the illegal construction of dry latrines, and the consistent deaths of sewage workers due to asphyxiation (inhaling of poisonous fumes from the sewage), are just some of the infinite loopholes in the government’s dealing with these perilous “manholes”. The dark consequences eclipse the respite that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aims to offer.
The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits the employment of humans as scavengers. Under the act, families of deceased former scavengers are entitled to a compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs. Those currently employed are also awarded Rs. 40,000 thus providing financial help to quit the job. As comforting as this may sound, the reality of its implementation is bitter. 1500 deaths have been reported, but thousands have gone undocumented. The 1993 act against the construction of dry latrines has gone bleak. In total, 256 districts in India are affected by the plague that is manual scavenging.
The recent incessant rainfall has only further exposed the frail condition of municipal corporations around the country. Bursting sewage pipes, uncovered drains, choked manholes have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes leading to dengue and chikungunya. There has been an alarming rise in deaths across the country due to inhalation of poisonous fumes. Currently, 2.6 million toilets in India require manual cleaning. Sanitation health and awareness is negligible; those who are aware of its adverse effects are often not bothered until a disease comes knocking at their own door.
Caste politics and no accountability
Despite laws in place regarding manual scavenging, the laid back attitude of the authorities is a prime concern. Officials blame contractors, and yet the contractors go unpunished; accountability is transferred.
The need for rehabilitation comes from the need of identification. Many cases go unrecognised. The Bhim Yatra (2015-2016) started by Bezwada Wilson—spanning through 500 districts across 30 states—had no considerable effects. The numbers kept rising. The vacancy in the local bodies of municipal corporations is alarming. The Mohali civic body alone reportedly needs 10 sewer supervisors and health inspectors.
The unwillingness of the society to eradicate this impinging evil is the deeply entrenched caste politics which sees Dalits in derogatory positions. Even the Dalits themselves—unaware of their rights, lacking the will to fight their “fate”, and unwilling to take another job—are part of the problem. Manual Scavenging offers them easy money. Another thorn is the denial of the authorities claiming that rampant manual scavenging exists. Misleading numerical reports from the government delay action further because analysis needs to be done again. The cycle seems endless.
The Hyderabad example
Amidst the brouhaha over the existence of manual scavenging, one state in India has already started taking stringent steps to prevent it. Under the “Swachh Telangana, Swachh Hyderabad” initiative, the government bought 70 mini air-tech jetting machines to clean sewer lines and choked manholes. It is also purchasing 2,500 auto tippers for collecting and transporting garbage from residential areas. The initiative is a welcome change. However, revamping the old Nizam-era sewage network would be a mammoth project costing 11,000 crores. The cost is too burdensome for the state to sanction alone.
The responsibility does not belong solely to the administration. The civil society is equally responsible for the management of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Separating the plastic waste from the organic waste initially would provide some respite. Collective condemnation of this diabolical practice is now inescapable. As remarked by Bezwada Wilson “If 39 deaths in 100 days don’t matter to the country, then it is the biggest challenge for our democracy.” This is contradictory to the government who claims itself to be the flagbearer of “cleanliness and hygiene”. Let us not allow civil apathy to engulf an entire community. The silence on the reported deaths needs to be broken, and those responsible should be legally held as such.
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