Manual Scavenging: India’s Dirty Secret

Manual Scavenging is actually ‘progeny of caste violence’ in Indian society. In the past two years, at least one manual scavenger died every five days while cleaning sewers.

January 26, 2019 by Umer Beigh
Manual scavenging is still a grim reality in India. Representative image. Credit: Safai Karamchari Andolan

Last Sunday, one more manual scavenging worker died while cleaning sewage from a drain in the Timarpur area of the Indian capital, New Delhi. ‘Manual scavengers’ is a term, used in the South Asian region, for those involved in cleaning of dry toilets and the sewage system. The practice is based on the discriminatory caste system prevalent in India that forces people belonging to ‘lower caste’ to work as manual scavengers. Employed by local administration and private companies on contract, these workers are forced to enter the drainage system without any safety equipment.

According to reports, least one manual scavenger dies every five days across India. Since 2016, over 420 laborers have lost their lives, cleaning sewage from septic tanks and drainage pipes in New Delhi. 37-year-old Kishan, who had entered the main drain on the morning of January 20, died on the spot after having inhaled toxic gases. His body was removed from the hole after several hours of search.

In September, five manual scavenging laborers, aged between 18 to 30, died inside a sewage tank in southern Delhi’s Moti Nagar. Their relatives told media that the laborers were forced to clean the drain by the facilities firms. All of them, Vishal, Pankaj, Sarfaraz, Umesh and Raja, were rushed to the nearest Acharya Bhikshu hospital, where they died during treatment.

In 2017, ahead of the Art Festival at Sassoon Docks in Colaba, Mumbai, a manual scavenging laborer, Ahmed Ansari, was given a similar contract to clean the pipelines filled with sewage. Soon after he began his work, the gases emanating from the tank left him and two other laborers unconscious. They were rushed to St. George Hospital by locals, where doctors succeed in resuscitating the other two workers, but Ahmed was declared dead. “The contractor was responsible for his death. He forced the laborers to go inside drain without taking any safety measures,” Satish Valunj, a fish supplier who rescued these workers, told reporters.

Prior to this, on July 15, another incident took place in Ghitorni, in southern Delhi, where Swarn Singh was working with his son and other three laborers. The laborers, who had stripped down to their underwear, got into a water harvesting tank. The 46-year-old Singh immediately complained dizziness before falling unconscious inside the tank. The others, Anil, Inderjeet and Dileep, also felt uneasiness and ended up inhaling the gases accumulated in the tank while trying to help Singh. “All of them then succumbed to the toxic gases, including my father. I don’t know how I survived,” 24-year-old Jaspal Singh, who recovered the body of his father himself, recalled.

Jaspal’s father hailed from India’s State of Rajasthan, from where he migrated to Chattarpur, in Delhi. He said that most of his family members worked as laborers, but not manual scavengers. “My father, Swarn Singh, was told to clean the water harvesting tank only, not the sewage. That’s why he agreed and took me along,” he said.

The deadly occupation

Within the first ten months of 2017, more than 125 laborers working as manual scavengers lost their lives across India. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India approved a compensation of up to INR 1 million (USD 14,036) to be released in favor of the families of those who had died due to manual scavenging. But manual scavenging workers claim that these deaths are “political murders” and that government compensation seldom reaches the affected families.

No specific data is available about the total number of laborers involved in scavenging. However, the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 data of manual scavengers, released by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2015, puts figures somewhere around 1,80,657 in the rural areas of the country. Prior to that, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment data gave a figure of 7,70,338 manual scavengers working across India.

“Most states say that there is no record when we ask them about information. Till July 2017, 13 States admitted to having 13,500 manual scavengers,” the Minister of Social Justice, Thawar Gehlot, admitted. Bezwada Wilson, convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an Indian human rights organization that has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, recently told Indian Express that state governments in Indian were fully involved in the first phase of verifying and then enrolling the workers who approached district-level camps. “Still, when they saw the actual numbers, they decided to go for under-reporting instead of eradicating the practice,” he said. Prime among the culprits in terms of States are Maharashtra which has 63,000 households who depend on manual scavenging. The state employs 35% of 1,80,657 Indian families who earn their livelihood by removing and unblocking excreta from sewers.

“How can one feel proud of cleaning the worm-filled, stench-producing shit of millions every day?,” said activist Bezwada Wilson. Sometimes, workers remain in the drains without any safety gear for eight hours straight. “Every now and then, bones, needles and glass pieces pierce our hands and foot,” said Anil Kumar, 39, who works with the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EMC) and survived a heart attack when he fainted while cleaning a drain in Delhi’s Jehangirpuri region.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), a cleanliness drive launched in 2014 by prime minister Narendra Modi, aims to make India free from open defecation within six years by constructing two crore toilets across states. However, it doesn’t deal with the eradication of caste-based, manual scavenging jobs.

Activists say that the alternative to manual scavenging is the use of the suction machines. They argue that the government should provide a “Livelihood Mission” in order to create a comprehensive plan for an alternative livelihood.

“In India, the system is opposite, people die here every day-and-night. It is unfortunate that we lack the data around the manual scavenging practice. All the data we collect is either outdated or very little. Neither the Central or State governments has a database of the deaths of sanitation workers. The number of people dying due to this practice is much higher than what we know,” Wilson notes.

Activists who demand that such practice should end permanently claim that the existence of such a “shameful practice” in India in post-enlightened modern times suggests the “sorry affairs of the state”. They claimed that manual scavenging is actually “progeny of caste violence” in Indian society, “which gets ignored because it is the Dalits or lower Scheduled Tribe people who clean someone else’s shit, not any high caste Brahmin or Rajanyas”.

The death trap  

Doctors say that exposure to methane and hydrogen sulphide gases is harmful as it increases the risk of developing cardiovascular degeneration, osteoarthritis and intervertebral disc herniation.

“Due to lack of medical attention, these workers suffer from several dreaded diseases like carbon monoxide poisoning, musculoskeletal disorders, infections, skin problems and respiratory ailments. Many women who work as sanitation workers often had to get their uteruses removed,” Ravi Aggarwal, a doctor in New Delhi’s Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital, said.

Civic contractors do not provide any medical assistance or insurance to these workers. Despite working day and night, most of them do not earn more than USD 120 per month. They are treated with discrimination because of their body stench. People avoid physical proximity with them. “I have not told my daughter that I clean people’s shit. I don’t want her to be ashamed of me,” a worker said.

“We are not given any safety gear, no oxygen mask, no gloves, no boots. The officials know that if I refuse to go down the sewer, they will have many others who can do the job. For them it’s like, either do the job or get out,” stated Mohammed Siraj, who has been a sanitation worker for more than 20 years.

Human rights activists stress that manual scavenging is not a career chosen voluntarily by workers but instead is a deeply unhealthy, unsavory and undignified job forced upon people because of the stigma attached to their caste.

As per activist Danu Roy, who runs a non-profit organization called Hazards Center in Delhi, the menace of manual scavenging is a “structural problem”. “Delhi has 20 lakh slum dwellers and almost 35 lakh people living in unauthorized zones. There will always be demand of manual scavenging to clean the waste which overflows from these sewer lines,” he said.

Political parties pass the buck and refuse to take the responsibility for these deaths. “There is no political will to solve this,” Wilson said in response to the death of a worker in New Delhi on Sunday. “We will hold nationwide protests ahead of the elections so that political parties come up with clear action plans to curb this practice,” he added.