Seven months on, Delhi govt fails to end manual scavenging

No machines to clean sewers have been purchased by the AAP govt despite promises, and a recommendation by a government committee, after 10 deaths from July 15 to August 20 last year

Photo courtesy: IANS
Photo courtesy: IANS


The AAP government's promise to put an end to manual scavenging by mechanising the process, after 10 people were killed cleaning sewers and tanks last year in the capital, remains unfulfilled.

No machines to clean sewers have been purchased by the government despite promises, and a recommendation by a government committee, after 10 deaths from July 15 to August 20, 2017, the Public Relations Department of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), which looks after procurement of machines, told IANS.

The non-availability of machines puts the lives of hundreds of workers, who go down to clean sewers and tanks manually, in danger.

On August 21, 2017, after the 10th person died, protests forced the Delhi government to impose a blanket ban on manual scavenging in the city and promise to buy machines to clean sewers.

"At any cost, no one should go inside sewers. You will have to use the machines you have. Whichever is not available and are needed, we will buy them," then Delhi Water Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam had said.

Though a committee was formed to look into mechanisation and a decision was taken to purchase 150-200 small machines to clean sewers and tanks in narrow lanes, which was mostly done manually, the plan has not materialised.

When asked about the delay, Gautam, who is currently Social Welfare Minister, told IANS: "So many things had to be done. Our officers went to Hyderabad and later I went to Pune to see the machines and then we had trial of a machine here. Now, we have decided to buy 200 machines and it has reached tendering stage."

But the process has not reached the tendering stage and the number of machines has not been confirmed, according to the PR Department of the DJB.

"It would be between 150 and 200," a senior DJB official who was privy to the development told IANS.

"I'm no longer the Water Minister, you will have to talk to the Chief Minister," Gautam said when asked about other promises.

Two weeks after the 10th death, Gautam was removed as the Water Minister and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took charge of the department and also as Chairman of DJB.

In four incidents, in which a total 10 people died, the script remained the same: Manual scavengers going down sewers and tanks without any protective gear or proper supervision... and it still continues in Delhi.

The workers say that they go down sewers about eight feet long without any protective gear or taking any precautions, except opening the lids for a while so that the noxious gases could escape before they go inside.

"We are scared sometimes, but to fill our stomach, we have to do it," Ashok Baruri, 32, a worker said.

Ramon Magsaysay award winner and activist Bezwada Wilson, who has been fighting to put an end to manual scavenging for the past 25 years, said that "Delhi is the worst" when it comes to manual scavenging.

"They have not even identified how many people are doing this (manual scavenging) through a survey," Wilson said. "Once a worker dies, going to the home and giving money is nonsense," he added. "What are they (government) doing to protect the people who are living?"

The government was supposed to issue a Standard Operating Procedure (SoP) for everyone, including private contractors, housing societies, malls among others in cleaning sewers and tanks.

The DJB said that they had passed the SoP, but it was pending before the Urban Development Department.

A decision was taken to train all workers, but training has been imparted to DJB workers and around 400 contract workers, but MCD workers and a large number of contract workers have not been trained.

Also, the fact that responsibility for cleaning sewers is spread across different departments—the DJB, three municipal corporations, New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), PWD and others—with hardly any coordination or uniform approach, makes the situation complex.

NDMC chairman Naresh Kumar told IANS that cleaning of sewers and tanks were 100 per cent mechanised in NDMC.

When contacted, PWD Principal Secretary Renu Sharma asked IANS to "please talk to DJB" and did not comment on the issue.

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