The abject poverty in which the manual scavengers, euphemistically called sewer workers, live is illustrated by the heart-wrenching photo of a dead labourer’s son standing next his corpse with a message that the family did not have the money to cremate the body in a Delhi colony. The misery conveyed by the image was so appalling that social media activists collected nearly Rs 24 lakh to help the dead man’s widow. Manual scavenging is supposed to be banned under a specially created law, but the occupation is still carried on by the lowest order of castes as the members of the community cannot find any other gainful employment.
According to available statistics, at least one worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017, which shows the seriousness of the problem, despite tall claims by the government of ameliorating the conditions of these hapless people. Eleven cleaners are reported to have died in sewer accident this month alone. The National Commission on Safai Karamcharis, the government agency responsible for the affairs of the cleaning workers, has recorded 123 deaths in sewer accidents in the last couple of years. But activists of Safai Karamchari Andolan say the number is at least 300.
It is a pity that the dehumanising practice of manual cleaning of sewers and toilets still continues although the ban came into being in the 1990s. The governments has passed several laws prohibiting it, but the members of the community continue to be engaged by local body contractors, who exploit the conditions of this most marginalised people to make money. Some have died in their first assignment itself as the workers are given no training nor provided with the any equipment. There is an inherent bias on the part of the administrations at all levels to under-report the number of people engaged by the contractors, with the result that the official records show ridiculously low numbers of such people.
There is clearly a failure of the administration in allowing the situation to continue as all the government plans to improve the conditions of the most backward and economically deprived communities have failed to touch their lives. Whenever accidents occur, leading to loss of lives, there is a knee-jerk reaction from the administration to put the blame on the employers, but things are back to square one as soon as the outcry dies down. The much-hyped Swacch Bharat Abhiyan had targeted to eradicate the practice by next year, but the progress so far appears to be far from satisfactory. There are several lacunae in the rules, by which a large number of workers remain outside the purview of the definition of manual scavenging. This has only helped brush the evil under the carpet.