Hazardous manual scavenging kills two more workers in India

Two sanitation workers who had attempted to enter a septic tank in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district succumbed to poisonous gas

February 24, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Manual scavenging India

Dozens of sanitation workers protested near the offices of Rustam Foods in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, following the death of two daily wage workers at the factory. On February 22, the two workers had attempted to enter a septic tank to clean it when they fell unconscious and later died. Protesting workers are demanding more safety protections for workers and compensation for the family members of the victims.

According to Newsclick, 26-year-old Channu and 25-year-old Rahul Raidas, both residents of Unnao district, did not have any safety gear when they had gone to clean the effluent treatment plant (ETP). They died from inhaling poisonous gas.

“My son has been working with the food factory for the last four-five years, and he was doing these cleanings of tanks without any protective equipment. The factory owner and management are solely responsible for his death,” the deceased’s father told NewsClick.

Hazardous work

The deaths of the two workers in UP is not an anomaly. According to figures from the Central Government, at least 347 people died between 2017 and 2022 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. However, activists from the Safai Karamchari Andolan (Sanitation Workers Movement), argue that the actual number of deaths is far higher since police complaints are not filed in many cases.

In India, this practice is called manual scavenging and it involves the removal of untreated human waste from bucket toilets or pit latrines. The practice is linked to the oppressive and discriminatory Hindu caste system in India. While the practice is prohibited by law, thousands of Dalits, who are considered to be untouchables under the caste system, are forced to clean human excreta with their bare hands and often with no protective equipment.

Ramakant Mishra, the state president of Municipal Employees Union of Uttar Pradesh, told NewsClick that “the business (of manual scavenging) is rampant and taking place under the government’s nose,” despite a ban by the Supreme Court.

“There are hundreds of sanitation workers in Uttar Pradesh who work under private contractors. However, no steps are being taken by the district administration to get them registered and provide them with safety equipment. Strict action should be taken against the culprits and compensation should be given to the families,” Mishra said.

On February 1, the Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced as part of the Union Budget 2023-24, that the government is going to put an end to the practice of manual manhole cleaning. However, many activists have complained that this promise lacks concrete action.

With inputs from Newsclick