A sample study of deaths due to sewer and septic tank cleaning since 1992, shows that First Information Reports (FIR) were filed in only 35% of the cases; none led to a trial or prosecution of any sort. Only 31% of affected families received cash compensation, while none received the rehabilitation or alternative jobs to which they are entitled by law.
The study was released on Thursday by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA) — an NGO partnering with the Union Ministry of Social Justice for an ongoing manual scavenging census —– and covered a sample group of 97 deaths in 51 incidents across 11 States. The NGO says it had identified 302 deaths in 140 incidents in those States, but admits the actual numbers could be even higher. The Ministry reported 323 deaths nationwide in 2017 alone.
On the sidelines of the release event, families of victims shared the personal tragedies.
The Dalit community held hartals to protest the two deaths in Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah in May 2009. Under pressure, the police registered an FIR and took the house’s owner into custody. The municipality promised compensation and permanent jobs for family members. A few months later, when the pressure died down, the owner was quietly released. The bereft family received no cash or jobs. Sanjeev told The Hindu, “If only the government will give me a permanent job, at least my parents will not have to do this work any more.”
Kamala Devi’s family did not get any death certificate, FIR or compensation when her son Binod Dom died in a village septic tank in the Nalanda district in Bihar, in 2011. He left behind five children under seven years of age. “We used to do maila dhoni work, but we have given that up because of the garima (dignity) campaign. But we can’t get any other kind of job. Now, we are all daily wage cleaning workers. Even the children collect and sort garbage,” she said.
“We are increasingly getting reports of deaths in septic tanks even from rural areas,” said Ashif Shaikh, RGA convenor. “When the government builds toilets through its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it is not taking into account the question of who will have to clean the septic tanks.”
In some cases, an official cover-up meant there was no acknowledgement of a death. “My father worked with the nagar palika (municipality) as a sweeper and garbage collector. It wasn’t even his job to clean the septic tank, but his supervisor made him do it that day. He was sent in with a candle to check if it was cleaned out, and the gases in the tank caught fire,” said Pankaj Khare, who was only four years old when his father died in Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, in 1995.
“The government was the employer, so how could we file an FIR? We didn’t even get a death certificate. We were not allowed to cremate him in the city because they wanted to avoid publicity; we had to go to a village outside the city,” he said, adding that his mother was paid ₹10,000 to “stay quiet.”
The Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation, under the Social Justice Ministry, will hold 200 camps across the country for sanitation workers to apprise them on the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, said its MD K. Narayan.