Manual scavenging: an indelible blot on urban life

Despite a clutch of laws and strictures from the highest court of the land the practice of employing human labour to clean sewers continues to this day, claiming the lives of labourers and leaving their families in a lurch.

Updated - March 26, 2017 09:22 am IST

Published - March 25, 2017 11:05 pm IST

Despite the ban on manual scavenging, men continue to be engaged in works to manually clear drainages. Vellore Corporations workers at work.

Despite the ban on manual scavenging, men continue to be engaged in works to manually clear drainages. Vellore Corporations workers at work.

As the scorching heat of the first month of summer baked the grubby streets of Cuddalore on March 20, three young men — two below 30 years and one in mid-30s — were called to clear a block in a manhole near Mohini Bridge in Thirupadiripuliyar.

It was not yet 4 p.m. when Jayakumar (28), a resident of Kudikankuppam in the old town of Cuddalore district, took along Velu (26) from the same locality and Murugan (35) from Soriyankuppam, a small village in the southern tip of Bahour enclave of Puducherry, to remove the block.

Unmarried and shouldering the responsibility of looking after his aged parents, Jayakumar worked as a supervisor in a private company in Chennai that had taken up the maintenance work on sub-contract from the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board for the 45 wards of the old and new town in the Cuddalore Municipality.

Murugan engaged in odd jobs to sustain a family of four, while Velu, a conservancy worker in his locality, was living with his partially-blind widowed mother.

When the three reached the manhole near Mohini Bridge, the surface of the road was too hot though it was evening. Velu got into the manhole first, followed by Murugan. When both of them did not surface, Jayaram went in. Shortly thereafter, all the three died of asphyxiation.

Following their death, protests erupted in Cuddalore with relatives and representatives of Social Awareness Society for Youth demanding that murder charges be pressed against government officials concerned and a case booked under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act as two of the deceased were Dalits.

Protesters also called for strict implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (MS Act, 2013) to identify and rehabilitate conservancy workers.

Harsh reality

Tamil Nadu, which is considered to be one of the most urbanised States with its vast network of underground drainage and septic tanks, continues to witness a significant number of deaths of manual scavengers.

Just five days before this incident, two conservancy workers died at Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh and three men died of asphyxiation at Bengaluru on March 7.

The names of these victims will now be added to a growing list of manual scavengers who died across the country since 2014 when the Supreme Court passed an order prohibiting manual scavenging. It is estimated that 1,500 conservancy workers have died since the Supreme Court order, and this figure does not account for the innumerable “manhole deaths” that have gone under-reported or unnoticed.

Magsaysay Award winner and national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson is on record terming the practice of manual scavenging a part of “the dirty Indian culture” rooted in the caste-based society.

An inescapable fact in a deeply caste-driven country like India is that a majority of people engaged in manual scavenging belong to the Dalit community. While the ‘untouchable’ caste was engaged for menial jobs even before India was colonised, the work of manual scavenging was perhaps institutionalised during the British regime.

Vidhya Ravindranathan, one of the few researchers to have studied the issue, brings in the culpability of the State in the sustenance of the practice. In her thesis, ‘Constructing the Scavenger: Caste and Labour in Colonial Madras 1860-1930,’ submitted to the JNU, she says: “Through limited municipal investments in night soil collection, the State (has) utilised untouchable labour to sustain the conservancy system.”

Though the jury is out on the origins of this inhuman practice, the fact remains that it persists even to this day despite being prohibited under a clutch of laws such as The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993; the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (MS Act, 2013) and despite a Supreme Court direction in 2014 to all the States to abolish manual scavenging and take steps for the rehabilitation of such workers.

A. Narayanan, director of the non-governmental organisation CHANGEIndia, who has filed multiple public interest litigation (PIL) petitions in the Madras High Court regarding the enforcement of MS Act, 2013, says that there is a fundamental problem of locating the manual scavengers.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 shows there are 1,80,657 households engaged in manual scavenging for their livelihood. According to House Listing and Housing Census 2011, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal accounted for more than 72% of insanitary latrines in India.

In response to a question on manual scavenging in the Rajya Sabha on March 16, 2017, Thawar Chand Gehlot, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, stated that as per the provision of the Manual Scavenging Act, 2013, State governments, through their urban and rural local bodies, were required to carry out a survey to identify manual scavengers.

Messy numbers

The 13 States and Union Territories have “reported identification of 12,737 manual scavengers up to January, 2017”.

The official data on the number of manual scavengers is far from accurate, though even the officially documented statistics is appalling in itself as it exposes the widespread prevalence of manual scavenging despite prohibition by law.

The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, prohibits the engagement or employment of persons for manually carrying human excreta, and further prohibits the construction or maintenance of dry latrines.

“But this practice still continues in as many as 256 districts in India,” reports Safai Karmachari Andolan. Worse still, most civic agencies have been lax in providing protective gear such as masks and gloves to these workers. The fact-sheet submitted to the Madras High Court by the CHANGEIndia organisation in Tamil Nadu, puts the figure at 209 as on February 23, 2017.

The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis former member Lata Omprakash Mahato, who has been visiting cities such as Chennai for the past few years to study the conditions of manual scavengers, reports: “The Tamil Nadu government submitted a list of 339 manual scavengers. The Chennai Corporation submitted a list of 252 persons. The data compiled by the government is not real. It is misleading. I have visited many areas and I have understood that the number of manual scavengers may be more. The State government should not give wrong data.”

Kathir alias Vincent Raj, Executive Director, Evidence, an organisation working among the socially marginalised sections, also corroborated that more than 300 manual scavengers have died in Tamil Nadu in the last 12 years.

Scavenging in other forms

Conservancy workers in Madurai acknowledge that though insanitary latrines where night soil had to be manually removed are rare these days, manual scavenging continues in other ways.

N. Tamilarasi (name changed), a worker with Madurai Corporation, who cleans a toilet located near a theatre on Kamarajar Salai in Madurai every day, says that the toilet floor is covered with human faeces because of the poor condition of the toilet. “Every day, I need to remove blocks in the toilet and clean the floor with brooms,” she says.

Another worker M. Karumayil, who was employed for door-to-door collection of garbage from Nagamalai Pudukottai near Madurai, points to the disposal of baby diaper and sanitary napkins.

“After collection, we need to manually segregate the degradable and bio-degradable waste. Every day, we come across diapers filled with human faeces,” she says.

Many of the officials are also said to be promoting manual scavenging in many areas that have illegal sewage inlets. Representatives of manual scavengers have demanded action against violators.

‘No machinery, inspectors’

The appropriate course for eradicating this problem is to look for a solution, as the existence and extent of the problem in question is undeniable. The focus must now be on eradicating it. It is also important to identify manual scavengers in order to rehabilitate them, says Mr. Narayanan.

The MS Act, 2013, under Section 33 states that every local authority or agency should use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and other spaces to eliminate manual handling of excreta. However, Mr. Narayanan submitted to the High Court that no appropriate technology or machine has been identified for cleaning of solid sedimentation of faecal matter in septic tanks.

“Hence, hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks continues at many places. Other safety gadgets and systematic medical check-up as per the rules remain a non-starter,” he said.

He has also pointed out that there is a shortage of sanitary inspectors in all the urban local bodies, including the Chennai Corporation. “These are the committees that are responsible for overseeing proper enforcement of MS Act, 2013, including investigating violations and awarding punishment as per the act to violators.

The Act gives a lot of responsibilities and powers to ‘inspectors,’ which in Tamil Nadu’s context will be Sanitary Inspectors. However, thousands of these posts are lying vacant,” he claims, adding that even the State-level and district-level monitoring and vigilance committees mandated by Section 24, 25 and 26 of the MS Act, 2013, Act were not functioning properly.

Divya Bharathi, a Madurai-based activist who has closely followed the cases of the death of more than 20 conservancy workers across Tamil Nadu over one year for her recently-released documentary ‘ Kakkoos ’ (toilet), says: “The Tamil Nadu government had not even formulated its rules for the implementation of MS Act, 2013. The union government has formulated a model set of rules. But even that is vague on investigation of violations.”

Mr.Wilson points out that lack of political will is one of the main reasons for the non- implementation of the Act and eradication of this inhuman practice.

“It is the caste mindset that perpetuates manual scavenging in our country and bureaucrats have no idea what is happening at the ground level,” he says.

He expressed disappointment over the Central government’s failure to respond to the country-wide campaign, Bhim Yatra 2015-16, carried out to “create awareness among those engaged in manual scavenging” and “to pressurise the government and parliamentarians” to stop the deplorable practice.

The campaign covered 500 districts in 30 States over 125 days starting from December 10, 2015, till April 13, 2016. “There has been no response from the government to the yatra or to the deaths of manual scavengers. The Prime

Minster has not issued a statement. Why can’t the Prime Minister intervene in this matter,” he asks.

Compensation, rehabilitation

While the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act enacted in 1993 prohibited the employment of manual scavengers for manually cleaning dry latrines and also construction of dry toilets, it provided for imprisonment of up to a year and a fine; the 2013 Act acknowledged the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers.

The Supreme Court order in 2014 directed that families of all persons who have died in sewerage system (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 be identified and a compensation of ₹10 lakh paid to their family members. The Tamil Nadu government has paid out to the families of 141 deceased manual scavengers.

Dr. Mahato notes: “There are various schemes for manual scavengers. They even receive ₹40,000 as instant financial help to quit the job. But the schemes are not reaching the real beneficiaries.”

On the other hand, Chennai Corporation officials say training for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers has started. “We started using machines for desilting drains. Stormwater drains along some roads were cleaned using machines,” says an official. However, the use of machines for clearing drains was suspended owing to funds crunch.

Accountability issue

Activists say that while providing compensation to the family of deceased workers has become less problematic in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to bring those responsible for the situation to book.

In Madurai, two incidents within a year which resulted in the death of three conservancy workers, are cases in point. “While the death of Solainathan was inside a private property, the death of other two workers in October 2015 happened when they were working for the Madurai Corporation. Though some officials were included in the FIR for the latter, no action has been taken against them,” alleges Ms. Divya.

Though cases were registered by the police under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 owing to protests by the family of the deceased and activists, no progress has been made in those cases so far.

“In most cases, senior officials conveniently escape from FIR by pointing fingers at the contractors to whom the jobs had been outsourced. However, even these contractors or their supervisors never get punished,” she says.

S. Muthulakshmi (20), a resident of Heera Nagar near Melavasal in Madurai, was expecting her first child when her husband A. Solainathan (26) died of asphyxiation while cleaning an underground sewer inside a posh gated community in August 2016. Though Madurai district administration made the residents’ association of the gated community cough up ₹10 lakh as compensation, Muthulakshmi, a single mother now, feels that deaths like that of her husband will not stop until stringent action is taken against those who engage workers for manual scavenging and the hazardous cleaning of sewers.

R. Babu of Social Awareness Society for Youth in Cuddalore states that the government officials concerned should be held responsible for perpetuating the practice. The Tamil Nadu Adi Andhra Arunthathiyar Mahasabha has been demanding that the government create awareness of the prohibition of manual scavenging.

“No person has been convicted for employment of persons in manual scavenging,” said M.Ravaniah, organising secretary of the Mahasabha.

( With inputs from Aloysius Xavier Lopez and Pon Vasanth )

A snapshot of history

“The concerns of public health and growing importance of night soil removal required a specialised department of conservancy and sanitation, which would deal with recruitment, and organisation of scavengers. Hence, the Act V of 1871 developed a separate sanitary department distinct from the Public Works and Engineering Department.

Since the cash-strapped municipalities undertook a substantial part of social engineering, the drainage and conservancy remained in an underdeveloped state.

Through unmechnanised methods of disposal and collection, they shifted the costs of drainage and conservancy to the cheap labour of the scavengers. There were two kinds of scavenging, the public or outdoor street scavenging and the private or house scavenging. The two dominant methods for transporting and collecting night soil were the dry conservancy and the bucket system. The scavenging operations primarily consisted of sweeping and removing dirt from streets, cleaning and removing sludge, flushing drains and cleaning and removing night soil, which was executed by a huge labour force consisting of men and women scavengers, cart coolies and drivers, bullocks, latrine boys and girls.”

( Source: Vidhya Ravindranathan’s M.Phil Dissertation ‘Constructing the Scavenger: Caste and Labour in Colonial Madras c. 1860-1930’ submitted to the JNU ).

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