India’s sewers saw nearly 300 deaths last year. In spite of the law banning manual scavenging, almost every other day a person employed as a manual scavenger dies in the country.
Newsclick spoke to Manhar Valjibhai Zala, chairperson of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), on this issue. The NCSK is a non-statutory body that looks into matters concerning the Safai Karamcharis’ welfare and makes recommendations to the government.
How has your experience been heading this challenging job, what with nearly 300 workers dying the sewers last year?
From the day I took up this assignment, I knew this is a very challenging job. The Safai Karamcharis are extremely exploited in the contract system, and not given the benefit of employees’ insurance scheme and PF benefits, while those working as daily wagers are not paid very meagrely.
The commission’s responsibility is to look into the welfare of the Safai Karamcharis, so how do you review it?
We are five members in the commission and we have taken the responsibility of different states to review and monitor the issue. We visit different states on tour and at the corporation and DM level, the committee reviews all grievances. We also plan to do reviews at the state level, so that the entire state is covered. This is going to happen for the first time, and will ensure that the maximum number of Safai Karamcharis get the benefit.
Does the commission also monitor if education is being provided to the children of the Safai Karamcharis and those working as manual scavengers?
We cannot directly do it, we direct the states to do that.
What are the challenges once the Swachh Bharat Mission realises its goal of open-defecation-free India? Who will clean the toilets as currently there is no push for mechanisation on that front?
The mission of the government has to be made successful and only the Safai Karamcharis can make it successful. We also have recommended that mechanisation of sewers be implemented. And when we met the Delhi Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor, when nearly 20 karamcharis had died, we made the suggestion that even if it is mechanised, such contracts should be given to the people from the same community.
What is the agenda of the Commission for the year 2018?
We will push for mechanisation of the sewers in the country. Also, we will initiate a programme for the whole country to ensure that the Safai Karamcharis become aware of their rights. We will also recommend a programme that takes care of the medical issues of the workers engaged in these kinds of work.
Does the Commission maintain any data on the deaths occur in the sewers?
We have research departments that maintain data on the deaths that are brought to our notice. Every institution that is there for addressing the grievances of the people has a helpline but the commission does not have one till date.
There are plans to start a helpline so that people can approach us more easily and for the benefit of the workers.