India's manual scavengers pay price of neglect

Government policy failures blamed for increase in deaths of Dalits as they clean sewers and septic tanks
India's manual scavengers pay price of neglect

An Indian manual scavenger carries a basket of human excrement after cleaning toilets in Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh state in this 2012 file photo. Activists believe more such workers are dying because of lax government policies. (Photo by Prakash Singh/AFP)

India's lax policies and social neglect have been blamed for the increasing deaths of Dalit workers engaged in manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Eleven manual scavengers have died this month — five of them on Sept. 9 in a single incident in capital New Delhi as they were cleaning a sewage treatment tank.

"It is ironic that the government is projecting the issue as some isolated incidents" when so many die each year, said Bezwada Wilson, who is working to end manual scavenging.

Wilson, a Magsaysay Award winner for his work among cleaning workers, told ucanews.com that the government's failure to effectively implement policies was the cause of such deaths.

The activist, who founded a movement for cleaning workers called Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), said he has documents to prove that 1,760 workers have died since 1990 while manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Social activist Deepak Mahar said that in caste-ridden Indian society jobs such as cleaning, public roads, toilets and sewers are set apart for socially and economically poor Dalit people, who are considered outside the four main castes.

Several chains of subcontractors employ Dalit people on daily wages to enter manholes without protective gear such as gloves and masks to remove waste. Most deaths occur when they inhale toxic gases or slip down in sewers, said Mahar.

"The government knows about this situation and but fails to create a responsible process," Mahar said, adding that there was no social pressure on government because Indian society generally ignores the rights and dignity of poor people.

Wilson said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which pushes for Hindu upper-caste hegemony, has done nothing since it came to power in 2014 to stop manual scavenging.

"As deaths occur, the federal government blames the state government, state governments hold municipal corporations responsible and the corporations point to private contractors. In this vicious cycle, it is the poor scavenger who gets killed and forgotten," he said.

The governments often budget for high-tech machinery and septic pumps to help end manual cleaning, but the continuing deaths are proof that they are not spending enough, Wilson said.

The federal government admits hundreds of deaths every year despite a law banning manual scavenging. At least 300 people died due to manual scavenging across the country in 2017, said a written reply by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in parliament last December.

A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch quoted India's Supreme Court to show that 9.6 million dry latrines were still being cleaned manually by people belonging to Dalit castes.

The 2011 census found that 2.1 million households dispose of their waste, including human excrement, in dry latrines or drains, which also are cleaned by manual scavengers.

Poor people usually take up manual scavenging because of traditional caste-based roles, fewer employment options and poor implementation of laws and policies prohibiting such practices, studies show.

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Government records show that India has 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states but activists like Wilson and Mahar believe the figure is higher. "The actual number should be much more as most scavengers do the job silently to earn food for themselves and their families," Mahar said.

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