From March 22 to April 26, 2023, as many as eight people have died while cleaning sewers in various parts of the Gujarat, raising concerns about the continuing deaths of manual scavengers despite the fact that the practice has been declared illegal across the country.
In Rajkot, two died on March 22, in Dahej three died on April 3, later two died in Dholka on April 23 and one more death was reported from Tharad in north Gujarat on April 26.
All incidents occurred when the workers without protective gears entered the sewer lines to clean them manually and died of asphyxiation or inhaling the poisonous gas. And after the deaths, police lodged cases of accidental deaths while in the Dahej incident, the case was lodged against the private contractor.
All the workers who died were hired by the private contractors who are roped in by the civic bodies or the government agencies to outsource the works related to maintenance of underground sewer lines.
In Gujarat, as per the figures shared by the State government in the Assembly recently, as many as 11 people died while cleaning sewer lines in last two years before these eight deaths that have been reported recently.
Seven sanitation workers lost their lives while cleaning sewers between February 1, 2021, and January 31, 2022, while four sanitation workers lost their lives between February 1, 2022, and January 31, 2023, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Bhanuben Babariya told the Assembly in March this year.
However, social activists working for the rights of the scavengers and community leaders from the Dalit outfits dispute the State government figures and claim that the real numbers are significantly higher.
“In Gujarat, more than 150 workers died while cleaning underground sewer lines or manhole. And all workers are either Dalits or tribals or in recent Rajkot case, a person from minority community,” said Hitendra Pithadiya, chairman of Gujarat Congress SC department.
NHRC probe sought
After the surge in deaths, Gujarat Congress leader Hiren Banker has written a letter to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking a probe by the national rights body into the deaths of sanitation workers in Gujarat.
In his letter, he said despite the illegality of this practice and the existence of laws in place to prohibit it, manual scavenging continued to claim the lives of countless sanitation workers across the State.
As per the government norm; if any worker is found dead while cleaning the septic tank or sewer or a manhole, ₹10 lakh compensation must be paid to the family of the deceased.
However, according to Mr. Pithadiya, in case of “accidental deaths, compensation is not paid” and the State agencies or the civic bodies escape the responsibility as well.
A leading activist Parsottam Vaghela of Manav Garima, a local NGO, recently wrote to the Chief Minister on the issue of rising deaths of scavengers.
“In last two months, 11 deaths have been reported in Gujarat. Since 1993, more than 300 people engaged in scavenging have died in the State,” he said in the letter, demanding strict enforcement of the law and stringent actions against the authorities or the private contractors.
According to him, the Gujarat government’s urban development, urban housing department, panchayat and rural development and rural housing departments have in 2019 issued circulars stating that in case of death of any sanitation worker while cleaning underground drains, septic tank or sewer line, action must be taken against the officials concerned but so far no officer of any civic body or any panchayat has been held responsible so far despite as many as 95 deaths since the circulars were issued.
On the question of compensation to those 11 persons who died as per the government records, the government admitted in the Assembly that it was yet to disburse financial compensation to six families — two who lost their family members in 2021-22 and four in 2022-23.