Delhi unable to stop manual scavenging

The Government acknowledges the existence of only 12,738 manual scavengers in 18 states in the country, with 82% of them in Uttar Pradesh. The figure is believed to be a gross under-estimation

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

DD Nigam

Loni Road, Shahdara, opposite Jyoti Nagar police station in Delhi. It was September 6 when I spotted six to eight men between the ages of 20 and 30 years engaged in cleaning an open drain without any safety gear.

Two of them were in the 6-feet-deep and 5-feet-wide drain, more than half their body immersed. Why were they doing it manually, I asked. A man by the name of Bhure, apparently the supervisor, came forward to reply defiantly that all the open drains in Delhi were cleaned manually.

There were at least 500 more men who were engaged in cleaning the drains. “If machines start doing their job, what are all these people going to do,” he demanded with a sarcastic smile. The contractor could go to prison, I said. The supervisor smirked. “The contractor’s name is Ram Sharma,” he replied, daring me to do what I could. I turned my attention to the men.

Were they aware that they were putting their lives and health at risk, that they could even die, that it was illegal, I asked. Why can’t they do some other work? They looked at each other before one of them said with a half-smile, “Aur kya karein?” (What else can we do ?) They were clearly sceptical about getting any other work.

And their expression conveyed that they did not believe the contractor could or would be jailed. It is a shame that manual scavenging continues in the national capital even as young men keep dying while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Worse, the contractors offer these jobs to people belonging to a few, select castes. The least the Delhi Government can do is to cancel the contracts.

How can the Municipal Corporations continue to defy the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2014 on manual scavenging, which prohibited manual scavenging without safety gear?

How can the Municipal Corporations continue to defy the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2014 on manual scavenging, which prohibited manual scavenging without safety gear? The court had also directed regular inspection of contractors.

September 16: Five men died in a septic tank in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh

September 14: A young man dies in Dabri, Delhi while cleaning a sewer pit

September 9: Five men (19-26 years old) die in DLF Capital Greens, Delhi

September 9: A sanitary worker in Ludhiana falls unconscious after inhaling poisonous gas. Three such incidents reported in Ludhiana in one month.

While the Government squanders resources on ‘smart cities’, no city appears immune to the inhuman service conditions under which sanitary workers , especially manual scavengers, continue to work.

Many more scavengers and workers have died this year while cleaning shit-pits in Odisha, in Hyderabad, in Karnataka, Bihar, Ghaziabad…across the country. Poisonous gas does form in open drains, septic tanks and when workers step into manholes. But when they step in without masks, oxygen supply, safety equipment and back up, they run a risk. Some survive and some don’t.

But no public servant or employee or manager of a company given the contract to operate Sewage Treatment Plants has been booked, jailed or punished, it would seem. Whosoever makes sanitation workers go down without safety precautions can be booked under ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ and also under ‘The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018’ if the sanitation worker is a Dalit.

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