EPW Editorial


The recent deaths of six sewerage workers in Delhi in two separate incidents form part of a continuing series of such deaths. However, the response of the authorities indicates a new normality. It is typical of all that is unacceptable and insensitive in dealing with those who are condemned to perform a task that is considered as crucial in the rhetorical language of swachh Bharat (clean India).


The pressure of poverty forces these workers to descend almost bare-bodied into sewers full of filth and excreta, fully knowing that they may asphyxiate to death as have many others like them. In the usual questions that follow these cruel deaths, the one that deserves an urgent answer is: Why must these workers get down into the filth as they do, when mechanised cleaning is available and has been mandated by law?


Activists and others who have long been campaigning for safety gear for these workers and improvement in their abysmal living conditions rue the lack of credible data on them. Just how many manual scavenging/sewerage workers are there in the country has not been documented. Perhaps, otherwise, there would be compulsion to acknowledge that such work actually exists. Yet, based mainly on media reports and the government’s replies in state egislatures/Parliament, there have been different and confusing estimates. The crux of the issue, however, is that no person, local authority or agency can hire people for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, amended in 2013.


Clearly, in the hierarchy of importance as viewed by society and the authorities in India, the plight of the sewerage workers who are from the lowest castes is simply not visible. They are the faceless ones who sweep the streets, and clean the drains, “house gullies” (narrow gutter lanes between buildings in the old parts of cities), septic tanks and sewerage lines for a pittance. Ever since the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan started, it has been pointed out that the actual foot soldiers of this mission have got scant attention and even less financial resources. In fact, as the spirited Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, the union of sanitation workers in Mumbai, described it, broom-wielding celebrities and ministers (are) “sweeping their own shadows while we keep the country clean.”


It is this entrenched association between the lowest-ranking castes and the work of cleaning other people’s waste that has led to lack of interest and efforts in pushing for mechanical innovation to access uneven gutters and drains. In a rapidly and haphazardly urbanising country, the work of keeping the sanitation system going, “cleaning its bowels” as it has been described, is integral to the smooth functioning of cities. In Bengaluru, for instance, apartment blocks can have their own sewage treatment plants, and do the repairs and maintenance too without involving civic authorities. This means that private agencies and contractors are hired to do this work and they in turn get “casual” workers on an ad hoc basis, without any thought to safety, and get the work done. This is how, too, five of the six sewerage workers died recently in Delhi.


As a prominent activist working among sanitation workers has pointed out, India has the technology to launch satellites but not to clean sewer lines and septic tanks that are just 20 feet or less underground. But, there have been laudable efforts to do this by making indigenous machines or in other ways. There is the much quoted example of jetting machines used by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the experiment launching “Bandicoot,” the robotic machine devised by socially conscious engineers of Kerala in Thiruvanathapuram, the “sewer croc” built by scientists and engineers in Hyderabad, and perhaps other attempts not covered in the media. It is these efforts that the authorities must proactively support and celebrate. The Delhi government too has received action plans for mechanised cleaning of drains and sewers, and the media reported a proposal to make “entrepreneurs” of safai karamcharis by providing them loans to buy and use sewer-cleaning machines. This is bound to throw up severe difficulties for them and therefore the government should buy these machines and employ people to operate them.


Interestingly, where workers have been given proper safety gear, the complaint is that it is so heavy and unwieldy that they prefer to strip it off and work. Here too, the efforts should have been to constantly experiment and finely hone lighter safety suits. But, do the authorities consider the lives of these workers valuable enough to fund such efforts? Coupled with the lack of mechanised cleaning is the hiring of contract sewerage workers—the government itself, especially the railways, is the biggest user of contract services—that is rampant for a job of a perennial nature.


The much vaunted and worthy aim of this government to harness the power of technology and innovation could be directed to prevent the cruel and unnecessary deaths of the sanitation workers.

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