It was only a few kilometers away from the glass façades of Electronics City, the symbol of hi-tech Bengaluru, that a daily wage worker was asked to physically clean a sewage pit in Jaihind International School at Begur.
Manu’s death on Saturday afternoon is a constant reminder that the scourge of manual scavenging continues in the city.
Since 2018, this illegal practice has claimed at least seven lives. In Karnataka, more than 70 people have lost their lives since 2008.
“This is a collapse of the entire system. Despite the presence of laws and court judgments, the practice continues. There is no societal or political will. The death shows the unravelling of the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan. People are still compelled to maclean septic tanks and manholes,” says Clifton Rosario, an advocate and State General Secretary of All India Central Council of Trade Unions.
During a meeting with the National Safai Karamchari Commission (NSKC), the union had demanded a survey of manual scavengers, the formation of a ‘rehabilitation policy for manual scavengers’ and a time-bound plan to curb the practice.
“There are enough powers to take preventive action to stop the practice and for legal action against those who have engaged scavengers. But, there is hardly any conviction in manual scavenging-related deaths in the State,” said Mr. Rosario.
While the Karnataka State Safai Karamchari Commission is the nodal agency for manual scavenging, the body has been headless for more than four months since the services of former chairperson M.R. Venkatesh were terminated.
“The fact that the body remains headless shows the low priority given to the commission, which is key to overseeing and following up with the police on the investigation into such cases. Without these follow-ups, criminal cases fall through,” he said. In many cases, information about manual scavenging came through activists and media reports rather than the police.
While the karamchari commission had estimated that the State has over 15,000 manual scavengers, the NSKC had, through a pilot survey, found 1,720 manual scavengers in four districts. Activists say these are under-estimations, and thousands of daily wage workers are employed every day to clean drains, sewage tanks or septic pits.