Is the Government Denying Manual Scavengers Dignity in Death?

India Aug 31, 2021

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In response to a question tabled by Congress MPs, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said that no deaths caused by manual scavenging were reported in the last five years. During the Budget Session in February though, the government reported that 340 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the same time period. So what led to this discrepancy in numbers?

This is because the government differentiates between manual scavenging and cleaning of sewers/septic tanks but experts have pointed out that the latter is merely an extension of the caste-based practice. Activists have expressed their belief that the government’s choice to exclude cleaning sewers/septic tanks in their definition of manual scavenging allows them to remain unaccountable for deaths caused.

Bezwada Wilson, the convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), pointed out that the denial of deaths caused due to an inhuman practice is inhuman in itself. He stated that as per their records 472 people have died in the last five years and 26 have died this year alone.

Now arises the question, whom does the government recognize as manual scavengers?

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 states that manual scavengers are people who are engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority for “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or open-drain”. It further adds that anyone involved in cleaning excreta ‘with the help of devices or using protective gear’ shall not be deemed a manual scavenger.

Activists have stated that cracks in the Act have become one of the reasons that deaths due to manual scavenging go unreported. It bans ‘hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks’ but defines hazardous as manual cleaning where the employer does not provide the employee with protective gear or cleaning devices and neither take safety precautions. Activists suggest that instead of banning manual scavenging, it perpetuates the practice. They note that septic tanks are often located and designed in such a way that a person has to enter them physically to clear any clogging since these are areas where machines cannot enter.

Further, when asked how many employees in the sanitation and cleaning sector are Dalits, Minister Ramdas Athawale said that the department has not maintained any such data. SKA’s website though, states that 98% of these workers are Dalit women who are engaged in cleaning drains, sewers, septic tanks, and railway tracks. A research published on Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) in 2020 states that these women belong to castes that are “at the lowest rung of the social order, and are ostracized by Dalits themselves”.

One reason for the lack of data is that this issue’s existence is not acknowledged by civic and state authorities. Bezwada Wilson believes that by saying that nobody has died, authorities are being complacent and letting things get worse. By excluding people based on technicalities, the government is denying these workers their fundamental right of dignity even in death. Mr. Wilson believes that the only way to prevent these deaths is to acknowledge the problem and take action towards it instead of turning a blind eye.

This article has been written by Pravallika Manju for The Paradigm

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