As many as 282 people have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country between 2016 and November 2019, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said in a response to a question by Rajya Sabha MP Vandana Chavan.
Among the States, Tamil Nadu has recorded 40 deaths, the highest in number, in these four years. This is followed by Haryana with 31 deaths, and Gujarat and Delhi with 30 deaths each. Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have recorded 27 deaths each in the same period.
In its response the Ministry stated that these figures are on the basis of FIRs filed by the respective State governments. According to the data tabled in the Rajya Sabha, 50 deaths were reported in 2016, 83 in 2017, 66 in 2018 and 83 till November 2019.
‘Higher than reported’
“Sanitation being a State subject, the people for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks are employed by local bodies. States and Union Territories have been requested to ensure filing of FIRs and prosecution in all cases of employment of persons for hazardous cleaning of sewers as per the provisions of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013," the response said.
Speaking about the deaths, Bezwada Wilson, national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation working to eradicate manual scavenging, said that the deaths are much higher than what is reported in the official statistics.
“We have been collecting statistics of such deaths since 1993. It is only after 2000 that we started getting figures. Our website has put the figure at 1,760 deaths,” Mr. Wilson told The Hindu. The Magsaysay award winning activist said that every year, hundreds of people die but nothing much has been done on ground.
“The deaths have been higher in states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh where there has been rapid and unplanned urbanisation,” Mr. Wilson said. Reducing human intervention in cleaning septic tanks and sewers is important to bring these numbers down, he added.
Bindeshwar Pathak, founder, Sulabh International Social Service Organization, also spoke on similar lines and said: “There are technologies available not only to detect the presence of poisonous gas in sewers and septic tanks but also for mechanized cleaning of it.”
In the same response, the Central government has put on record that there are about 60,440 manual scavengers identified across the country, in 17 States.
More than half of them, about 35,472, have been identified from Uttar Pradesh alone.
The Parliament had enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 which came in force from December 6, 2013.