The illegal practice of manual scavenging is Bengaluru’s dirty little secret hidden behind the façade of posh apartment complexes, glass buildings and tech parks. The death of a daily wage worker while he was physically cleaning a sewage pit at a school in Begur on March 2 brings this problem back into the limelight.
Barely 70 km away, however, in Tumakuru district, the practice — banned under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 — is more widespread. Many pourakarmikas who have lost their jobs and those who have not been paid for months are working as manual scavengers to eke out a living. Workers hired by gram panchayats haven’t received their wages for 10 months, while those contracted by urban local bodies have not been paid for two months.
Only urban local bodies in the district have one or two sewer jetting machines. This results in a demand for manual labourers at the rural level. More often than not, labourers are not provided with safety equipment. “I am paid ₹700 if I clean a soak pit, hence I work as a manual scavenger. I don’t have a choice as I have to feed my children,” said Maranna, a pourakarmika of Pavagada taluk.
The minimum wage for pourakarmikas across Karnataka is ₹541 per day. If a pourakarmika takes four days off in a month, they get ₹14,066 (i.e., 541x26 days) at the end of it. In most gram panchayats however, they are paid only ₹3,000 to ₹6,000 a month. There is no uniformity in wages and often, the pourakarmikas are not paid every month, as panchayat officials cite lack of funds. In most urban local bodies, minimum wages are paid. But this has not been the case for the past two months.
Another pourakarmika, Subhadramma, who works in the same taluk, said that most of the sewage pipes in Pavagada are connected to the drainage. “Men clean the drains without any safety gear and place the waste on the side of the road. We women fill metal bowls with night soil and carry it on our heads to load it onto tractors,” she said.
When contacted, officials denied these allegations. Siddagangaiah, a member of the Madhugiri sub-divisional Manual Scavenging Vigilance Committee said that officers hesitate to show that their area has manual scavengers fearing legal issues. “There is manual scavenging in all the villages of the 10 taluks of Tumakuru district,” said Mr. Siddagangaiah.
K.B. Obalesh, a member of Karnataka State Manual Scavenging Monitoring Committee, pegged the number of manual scavengers in the district at 3,375 which he estimated could be the highest in any district across Karnataka.
Most gram panchayats, citing lack of funds, allegedly do not pay the minimum wages to pourakarmikas per month, as specified by the State government. “Many have also taken up manual scavenging after they lost their jobs in the direct recruitment process,” Mr. Obalesh added.
Jagadish Hiremani, member of the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis, said he had told officers to take stringent action against those who hire pourakarmikas to clean soak pits.
“I have also directed the Deputy Commissioner to pay all their pending salaries, issue payslips and conduct a master health check-up once in three months,” he said.