An image of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, washing the feet of a safai karmachari (sanitation worker) at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in February went viral on social media. During the same religious fair, one sanitation worker lost his life due to administrative negligence. Looking at these two events, one is struck with a deep sense of irony. Even before the Kumbh Mela started, sanitation workers had been demanding an increase in wages, from Rs 295 per day. After several rounds of protest, the administration hiked their wages by a paltry Rs 15, making it Rs 310, which is still lower than the minimum wage. Just a week after this, two contractual manual scavengers suffocated to death in Modi’s own constituency, Varanasi.
The National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), which comes under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, conducted a survey between March and September 2018. Out of over 700 districts, the survey was carried out in only 163 districts. Even among these 163 districts, complete information was gathered from only about 100 districts. The results of the official survey is a gross underestimation of the actual conditions. According to the 2018 survey, 20,596 people were identified as manual scavengers, while in a survey conducted in 2013, the number of scavengers was 13,368. The NSKFDC has not officially disclosed yet how many people actually registered themselves as manual scavengers during the survey.
There are 26,00,000 dry latrines, including both community dry latrines which are used collectively by people and individual dry latrines present in individual houses. In both cases, humans are employed for cleaning excreta on a daily basis, standing as a testimony to the persistent practice of untouchability in India. Over 7,70,000 workers are employed in cleaning sewers. According to the Supreme Court’s order, it is a crime to force a human being to enter a sewer line, unless it is an emergency, but not without the required safety gears. The reason for criminalising humans entering into sewer lines is the really high probability of death due to the inhalation of poisonous gases. Due to the negligence of the government, workers are forced to enter manholes and subsequently die of asphyxiation.
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Around 36,176 workers are employed as Manual Scavengers at Railway Stations. There are about 8,025 railway stations in the country which ferry about 2,30,00,000 passengers everyday. Whenever passengers use train toilets while trains are halted at stations, the excreta directly falls on the railway tracks beside the platforms. The tracks littered with human feces are cleaned by a human work-force. When drains and manholes are clogged, humans are expected to enter them and clear it. This work not only forces people to completely dip themselves in sewer water, but often those engaged in this work die upon inhaling poisonous gases.
According to the data collected by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (the statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers), one sanitation worker dies every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In 2017, there were 137 deaths, 105 in 2018, and, in 2019, already 11 people have died. The numbers illustrate the plight of sanitation workers, who are condemned to work in inhuman condition at meagre wages.
BJP Government’s Failure to Protect Sanitation Workers
The ruling BJP government talked a great deal of schemes and programs for the upliftment of manual scavengers such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, however, no substantial measures were taken to relieve the misery of India’s sanitation workers. Since the launch of the campaign, every time the prime minister got an opportunity to speak for the people who belong to the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy, he spoke with sympathy and will to empower them. But his words don’t match the action on ground.
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In this year’s interim budget, the Central government has cut by more than half the funds for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Only Rs 30 crore have been set aside for the scheme for the next financial year. The budget for the last financial year which ended on March 2019 had earmarked Rs 70 crore, according to the revised estimates for 2018-19. Under the rehabilitation law, an immediate assistance of Rs 40,000 has to be given to a manual scavenger. The money that has been allocated for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers is not enough to rehabilitate even 300 manual scavengers with alternative jobs.
Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act
Manual scavenging as a practice was outlawed 25 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This act was adopted by 23 states and all union territories. Two other states have enacted their own laws, which are similar to the central Act. In 2003, the Safai Karamchari Andolan filed a writ petition requesting the Supreme Court to direct the centre and states to take effective steps to eliminate manual scavenging and implement the 1993 Act. Even after 18 years of coming into force, a census survey in 2011 showed that there were over 23 lakh dry latrines in the country. In 2011, the National Advisory Council recommended steps to eradicate manual scavenging and prohibit the employment of manual scavengers.
In 2012, a Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha to create more stringent provisions for the prohibition of insanitary latrines and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act came into force. However, according to Bezwada Wilson, this law leaves people “helpless”. He says, “In the earlier Act, the district magistrate had the power to solve all the cases, but that’s not the case with the current one. If the assigned public official isn’t doing his duty of identifying manual scavengers and processing their rehabilitation, there is no mechanism to pull them up.” Media had quoted him saying that, "The Act does not address critical aspects of provisions like the rehabilitation of those who were liberated from manual scavenging before passing the law in 2013. Liberated manual scavengers regularly face brutal atrocity and violence. Therefore, ensuring protection for these families is crucial.”
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The people involved in manual scavenging often come from Scheduled Caste communities such as Valmiki or Hela. This speaks volumes about how the practice of manual scavenging are both the cause and effect of the caste system. Human faeces and urine harbour a variety of diseases. They may be hosts to diseases such as Hepatitis A, E. coli, Rotovirus, Norovirus, and pinworms. Workers are at risk of infection as they deal with such waste matter. This explains why many sewer workers die as young as 40, falling prey to multiple health issues: cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid and cardio-vascular problems. Repeated handling of human excreta without any safety equipment leads to several respiratory and skin diseases, anaemia, jaundice, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning. Up to 90% of sanitation workers are women. Households with dry latrines prefer women to clean the excreta instead of men as they are located inside the house. There is a huge gap in the wages of men and women workers. On an average, women get paid between Rs 10 and Rs 50 every month per household, while men earn up to Rs 300 a day for cleaning sewer lines.
Sanitation workers are often in the dark, when it comes to their terms of employment, wage structure and schedules. They do not receive salary slips and are even unaware of their provident fund account details. If they ask for their salaries, they are threatened with lay-offs. Workers employed by sub-contractors are even worse-off. Workers have no external support to take measures for collective bargaining. Majority of these workers belong to Scheduled Caste community. These sub-castes that sanitation workers belong to are only 12-13% of all SCs, and as they are seen as belonging to the ‘lowest’ rung of society, their issues and problems are conveniently ignored.
While safai karmacharis continue to risk their lives every day, and toil tirelessly in atrocious conditions, the Modi Government has paid no heed to their plight. The Prime Minister, wrote in his autobiography, that the work done by manual scavengers is a ‘spiritual experience’.This may be seen as an indication of him having no intention of doing away with this heinous practice.
Arijit Sengupta is studying at Shiv Nadar University.
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