January 16, 2020
Kaverappa being lifted out of a pit by Muniraju in Bengaluru. By: Water Aid / CS Sharada Prasad

Social discrimination and failed government schemes ensure status quo 

“Many things end up in large sewers. Once I walked through the large sewer line near Cubbon Park to clear a cow stuck in the sewer. The sewerage board gave me a gun to walk through the sewer," said Gangalappa, who clears residential blockages in the city of Bengaluru. "The water in that large sewer is knee deep and sometimes comes to waist level and has all sorts of creatures in it - snakes, birds, rats. Hence the gun.

I had to cut the rotting cow with a saw. It took me almost an entire day. When I had to go home, I could not take a bus or rickshaw. I was stinking because of the rotten cow. I walked for two hours to get home. Even while walking I had to stay as far away from the public as possible."  

Manual scavenging is a hereditary occupation that predominantly involves forced labour and is mostly done by Dalits. It is estimated that 1-3 sanitation workers die cleaning sewers every five days in India. 

In first six months of 2019, at least 50 workers had died in just eight states of India. On September 18, 2019, the Supreme Court stated that “nowhere in the world are people sent to gas chambers to die”. Meanwhile, government declared August 15, 2022 as a deadline for ending manual scavenging and improving the safety of sanitation workers. This came after previous deadlines were crossed.

Inadequate government schemes, poor social and financial status and lack of livelihood options restrict these families to their hereditary occupations. “Everybody wants us to quit this job, but we don’t have any alternative. Government is not providing us with other jobs nor are we receiving any financial support to start something of our own. Let BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (corporation of Bangalore city) employ us. They should employ us as workers with 35 years of experience, not as a fresher.” said Kaveraapa (54), who has been in the profession of cleaning pits and drains for almost 35 years.

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A report, “The Hidden World of Sanitation Workers in India", published by a non-profit organisation, WaterAid, identified 1,686 workers in 12 districts of four states who were engaged in different kinds of manual scavenging. These included 423 septic tank cleaners, 286 open-drain cleaners and 956 dry-latrine cleaners of whom 92.35 percent were women. Around 36 percent faced violence and 50 percent experienced untouchability because of their work.

The Sanitation Workers' Project by Dalberg Associates, a policy advisor firm, had estimated 5 million sanitation workers in various urban locations across India. Of these 2.5 million faced high occupational hazards and risks. Most of them come in direct contact with human faeces in different forms, without any support systems or protection gear. Women sanitation workers are worst off as they face discrimination in wages, entitlements, decision-making processes and benefits and knowledge of welfare programmes. Even workers’ union, safety net for workers typically excludes women. 

Around 36 percent of manual scavengers faced violence and 50 percent experienced untouchability because of their work, said a recent report

Health and Safety

Many a times these workers scoop out filth with bare hands and force themselves into septic tanks and sewers without wearing any protective gear. This exposes them to a wide variety of health diseases. Toxic gases such as ammonia, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide in septic tanks and sewers can also cause workers to lose consciousness or die. At least 50 sanitation workers had died cleaning sewers in the first six months of 2019 in just eight states of India, said the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK). It is estimated that 1-3 sanitation workers die every five days in India. 

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Muniraju, 37, hand's after manually emptying a pit, in Bengaluru, India. August 2019. Credit: WaterAid/WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad/Very few workers live beyond 60 years of age and many can’t work beyond 50 years, said a study conducted by the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) in 2005. Over three-fourths of the surveyed workers suffered from exhaustion and almost as many had  chronic cough. The other major chronic symptoms included headache, skin rash, skin irritation and body ache. Another study from Mumbai found 69 percent workers received safety gears but most didn’t use those because of poor quality and inconvenience.

“These days everyone asks us to use safety gear, particularly shoes and gloves. But you cannot work wearing those,” said Kaverappa. “It is not easy to get into or climb out of the pits if we wear shoes or gloves.”

These days everyone asks us to use safety gear, particularly shoes and gloves. But you cannot work wearing those

Discrepancies in Data

A man emerges from a manhole, all drenched in sewage. Urban viewers cringe and  question “How can such a practice still exist in today’s India?” Anubhav Sinha’s ‘Article 15’ was the first Hindi movie to feature a manual scavenger. The fact that it took 120 years for the mainstream Indian cinema to acknowledge a discriminatory occupation is a commentary on our society.

There is lack of data or any reliable statistics on people who are engaged in this work. Most state governments deny existence of the practice in their regions. The data available from various sources reflects the contradictory picture. In July 2019, in a response to a question in the Parliament, the Ministry of Social, Justice and Empowerment stated that government has identified 54,130 manual scavengers from 170 districts of 18 states where the insanitary latrines were converted to sanitary latrines.

Most state governments deny existence of the practice in their regions

But this data does not include cleaners of septic tank, sewers and railway tracks and other property. It also excludes much of urban India. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a movement for elimination of manual scavenging, said counting by the government omitted many casual, contractual and migrant workers.

The Indian Railways used to be the key employers of these workers but there are now new avenues of employment as well. The contracting arrangements are, however, in the hands of private agencies now. “The question is not whether the workers doing manual scavenging for the railways are contract labour or its own employees. The question is whether they are manually cleaning the human excrement from the railway tracks or not.” wrote Bhasa Singh, author of  the book ‘Unseen:The Truth About India’s Manual Scavenger’.  The data from SKA said there are 37,167 railway cleaners. Most of the bio-toilets are ineffective and the water discharged is no better than raw sewage. 

In an interview given to India Spend, national convener of SKA, Bezwada Wilson, said “The railways has already wasted money on cemented aprons (built on platform lines to clean garbage and toilet waste), and then tried to implement a control discharge toilet system (to eliminate spillage of toilet waste), which has also failed. Crores have been invested. Now the bio-toilets are also ineffective. As of now, they have no solution for manual scavenging.”

Swachh Bharat Mission

Many feel that large number of toilets constructed under Swachh Bharat Mission can increase the undignified work of manual scavenging in the absence of proper technologies of emptying and cleaning. Under SBM, the government claims to have constructed 95 million toilets, using twin-pit technology. Parmeshwar Iyer, secretary of ministry of water and sanitation, said that the toilets built using twin-pit technologies are 100 percent safe and anyone can empty the pit.

But according to an analysis of raw data from the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-18, no more than 13 percent of toilets built had twin pits while 38 percent had septic tanks with soak pits and 20 percent had single pits, both damaging to the environment. 

Swachh Bharat Mission can increase manual scavenging in absence of proper technologies of emptying and cleaning the pits

“It’s about corporatisation of toilets, where government is not bothered, whether people are actually using them or not, whether there is provision of water in the toilets or not. The mission doesn’t talk about eradication of manual scavenging” said Wilson in another interview.

During the budget speech on February 1, 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government will make special efforts to eradicate the practice of manual cleaning of sewer systems or septic tanks.

(L-R) Muniraju, 37, and Krishnappa, 65, pour out the contents from emptying the pit in Bengaluru, India. August 2019.  Source: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad/.

Gaps in laws and policies 

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act (PEMSR) replaced The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act,1993. The new law expanded the definition of manual scavengers to include most categories of sanitation workers operating in hazardous environments. It includes sewer workers, septic tank cleaners besides those handling excreta on railway tracks, which the earlier law excluded. The new Act, however, does not cover mechanised operators and sanitation workers who use protective gear.

Awareness regarding the law remains low. The Water Aid study found that only 26 percent of the workers were aware of the new law and only 20 percent knew that manual scavenging is prohibited. Several state governments did not implement the 1993 Act and Bihar and Rajasthan framed their own legislations. The new Act, passed under entry 24 in the concurrent list by the union government, mandates the state with responsibility for identification of persons engaged in manual scavenging, their liberation and rehabilitation. 

Sanitation workers use a 120 foot long jetting hose connected to a mechanised truck to service sewers on streets of Delhi, India. 2019 Credit: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

The new Act also mandates a one-time cash assistance, scholarships for their children and a residential plot with financial assistance to construct a house to each manual scavenger. But state agencies have failed to collect reliable data. Names of vast majority of manual scavengers are not included in government’s surveys and most of them have received limited benefits from government schemes related to rehabilitation, alternative employment and child education.

“More than 10 years ago Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike people contacted me and my fellow workers to rehabilitate us. They came to our place, inspected the work we did, took our family pictures, called us for several meetings, made us open a bank account saying that we will get some money. But nothing happened,” says  Kaverappa. “We did not even get an ID card that recognises us as manual scavengers. When enquired, we were told that Rs 40,000 has been deposited into your account. But we never saw any money in our account. When we went to ask BBMP, we were told that they will find out and let us know in the next meeting. Several additional meetings happened but money never showed up. We asked them to give us mechanised trucks or provide alternative employment. All we got was more meetings.”

In 2017-18, Rs 5 crore was allocated for self-employment scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. This was 93 % less than Rs 70 crore in 2013-14

The Self-employment Scheme for Rehabilitations of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), a  Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment scheme to rehabilitate manual scavengers, has also seen a decline in budget allocation.  

Under the scheme, a loan of upto Rs 10 lakh is given for self-employment projects. In case of sanitation-related projects like vacuum loaders and pay-and-use toilets,  this loan amount is increased to Rs 15  lakh.  An immediate cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to the manual scavengers or their dependents. 

A compensation of Rs 10 lakh is to be provided to families in case of deaths related to sewer cleaning. As of December 2017, a  total  of  323  cases  of  such  deaths  had  been  reported. But complete  compensation was paid in only 63 per cent cases and only 1 per cent of all identified manual scavengers had actually been provided loan until July 2017, said a study of Accountability Initiative run by think-tank Centre for Policy Research.

In the financial year of 2017-18, an allocation of Rs 5 crore was made towards the scheme, down by 93 percent from 70 crore in 2013-14. Along with decreasing fund allocation, expenditure has also been low with only Rs 56.12 crore spent between 2014-15 and 2017-18 under the scheme. Till November 2017, one time cash assistance had been given to 94 percent of identified beneficiaries.

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