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India’s invisible septic tank workers fight a losing battle

“If the choice is between poverty and a septic tank, I will choose the septic tank” - An age-old battle for dignity that India’s sanitation workers are losing.

By Ashutosh Dixit
New Update

Manual Scavenging Manual scavengers at work | Photo courtesy | Safai Karamchari Andolan | Facebook

“I clean sewers and septic tanks out of helplessness. Nobody does this out of choice. I lost my brother-in-law in a manhole. From 8 a.m to 5 p.m, we clean sewers, septic tanks and manholes. We hardly make 300 rupees a day, and we don’t get any support from the government. I feel that one day I may also die in a manhole like my brother-in-law. I have children. If the choice is between poverty and a septic tank, I will choose the septic tank. I must feed my children,” says Rajiv Lal, a septic tank worker from Vishwas Nagar in Delhi.

Bezwada Wilson, National Convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan speaks to The Probe

Four years ago, Lal’s brother-in-law died in a manhole. His family compelled him to stop manual scavenging after the death in the family, but he continued cleaning septic tanks, sewers and manholes. He says he cleans at least three to five manholes or septic tanks daily. “Once I get into the hell hole, no matter how much I wash myself, the stench never goes away. These days I am constantly falling sick, and I have infections, stomach and liver-related issues,” adds Lal. 

Like Lal, numerous people indulge in the prohibited practice of manual scavenging in India. The problem has persisted for centuries, but in India, their deaths are not even acknowledged. In Chennai, two men, Kalidas and Saravanan, died of asphyxiation last month while trying to clean a well. The case was widely reported by the media only when a prominent organisation issued a statement after the police refused to file an FIR in the case. 

The practice of manual scavenging is prohibited under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers, and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and the law prescribes severe punishment if people employ manual scavengers. But in India, it is not uncommon to see sewers and septic tank workers get into manholes without wearing protective gear. 

Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor of Safai Kararmchari Andolan, says that the government has not maintained a database on sewers and septic tank cleaners. According to him, the government also does not have accurate records of the number of deaths of sanitation workers. 

Manual scavenger Manual scavenger at work | @PriyankaSamy | Twitter

“The government has not maintained data, and that is the saddest part. People like us from the Safai Karamchari Andolan collect the data and hand it over to the government. NCRB does not collect the data. We report each and every death to the Governor, Chief Minister, President, Minister for Social Welfare, Prime Minister and all the other authorities. We provide the data to the nation and the world. But tell me something, we have access to the data because we belong to this community. We will do this service till the time the need exists, but is it not the government’s responsibility to maintain data? This just shows that the government really does not care about the plight of this most marginalised section of our society.”

For many years, the members of the Safai Karamchari Andolan have been documenting the deaths of manual scavengers across the country. They have been maintaining records related to the registration of FIRs and the cause of death of the workers. 

This month, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment informed the Parliament that “there is no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging”. However, the ministry goes on to admit that “330 persons have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks during the last five years.” The report shows that most numbers of sewer deaths took place in the country in Uttar Pradesh (47 deaths), followed by Tamilnadu (43 deaths) and Delhi (42 deaths). 

The sanitation workers who have been fighting for decades for liberation from one of the most dangerous jobs in the world have said that the government data is so inaccurate that it does not even skim the surface. Dr Renu Chhachhar, a core team member and sewer worker platform coordinator at Safai Karamchari Andolan, says most deaths occur because the workers get into sewer lines, septic tanks and manholes without wearing any protective equipment.

“Usually, we get phone calls whenever there is an accident. We try to reach the spot as soon as possible, but most of the time, death occurs immediately because they don’t get timely treatment, and these workers get into these dangerous holes without boots, gloves, or proper masks. Just two days ago, there was a death in Punjab. These deaths occur daily, and it is deplorable that no one cares for the lives of these workers.”

Stop killing us Stop killing us movement | Pic courtesy: Safai Karamchari Andolan

Renu adds that the only solution to this age-old problem is the use of technology and complete mechanisation of the process. “My appeal to the government is, please stop killing us. I am saying this with utmost responsibility. The government is complicit in this crime through its silence. Why can’t they stop people from going into manholes if the government can proactively introduce demonetisation and other policies overnight at breakneck speed? Why can’t they mechanise the entire process and eliminate human intervention in cleaning manholes and sewer lines?”

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment conducted two surveys in 2013 and 2018 to identify manual scavengers in the country. As per the survey, 58,098 eligible manual scavengers were identified and were paid one-time cash assistance of 40,000 rupees. Right activists say these figures do not reflect the number of workers in the country, and the one-time cash assistance paid does not help sanitation workers’ sustenance. 

“The sanitation workers don’t need one-time assistance. First, they need the government to accept their existence and their deaths. Second, they need to be rehabilitated, and they should be given an alternate source of income. More than 90 per cent of these workers belong to the SC/ST community. This is still a caste-based occupation. The government shows no intent to rehabilitate them. They don’t care about people dying in the gutters. I am not just talking about this government. I am talking about all the successive governments that have not implemented the existing laws. The Supreme Court in 2014 clearly said that all workers who died since 1993, their families should get a compensation of 10 lakhs and must be rehabilitated, but this has not happened in many cases. For instance, in Thane, where we have done extensive work, we have to approach the government for compensation for these victims, and even then, the file starts moving only when we do multiple follow-ups. So, you can imagine if this is how they deal with us, how they would be treating the families of victims,” says Shreyas Pande, from the Muse Foundation in Maharashtra. 

According to Wilson, deeply rooted caste hierarchies are one of the main reasons why our society has accepted the practice of people manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks. “The government officers are themselves recruiting manual scavengers to clean sewers and septic tanks. But even if these cases get reported, not a single government official gets punished. In India, we have almost institutionalised this savage practice of manual scavenging. This is a heinous crime, and caste prejudices must end, but that can only happen when people’s mindset changes. For this, the government must create mass awareness, and we must delink caste with sanitation work. But the first step towards a solution is accepting the existence of these workers and honouring their deaths by honestly accepting that as a society we have failed these community members.”