Human Rights
Irony died as the state’s Social Welfare Minister talked about legalising exposing workers to toxic fumes.
PTI

One week after the death of three men in Bengaluru due to toxic fumes from a manhole they were made to enter, three days after a contractor was caught red handed sending more workers into a pit in the city, the Karnataka govt has proposed the ‘perfect solution’ to the problem: To legalise manual scavenging.

The state’s Social Welfare Minister H Anjaneya has said that the department was planning to introduce a new legislation which would allow manual scavenging - an act that was only recently banned by the Central govt, after a Supreme Court ruling against the practice.

But the Minister, it seems, has other ideas. Completely downplaying the risks involved, and the value of human lives, H Anjaneya said that it is okay for men to be sent into pits filled with sewage and toxic fumes as long as the the police, fire department, and officers of civic agencies and an ambulance are present.

“This proposal is only for emergency situations,” Anjaneya claimed. “If men are required to enter manholes when there is absolutely no choice. They must be given proper protection and only then can they be allowed to enter the manholes.”

But what about the fact that we’re in 2017, and the world is trying to make driverless cars happen? Surely, there can be machines that do the job of cleaning drains?

The Minister has a ready answer for that as well. “What if the machines are not in working condition?”

Angry with the callous proposal, human rights activists have said that it is inhuman to employ men to decongest sewers.

“The Supreme Court has deemed manual scavenging illegal. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 deems it illegal as well. How can a state minister promote manual scavenging?” asked Narayana, Chairman of the Safai Karamchari Committee, Karnataka.

“Besides, instead of spending money on deploying more officials on the spot, the government can invest the same in procuring equipment to clean the sewers,” he added.

Narayana said that while the law banning manual scavenging itself is weak, this proposed amendment by the Karnataka govt will further worsen the situation.

Chapter II, clause 4 of the Act provides for manual scavengers to enter septic tanks and sewers, as long as 44 prescribed safety measures are taken.

According to the 2013 rules, a person can be deployed into a sewer only for the "removal of concrete door where mechanical equipment cannot be put into operation, for removal of submersible pump sets fixed at the bottom of suction wells and for reconstruction of manholes," said Clifton Rozario, President of the BBMP Pourakarmika Committee.

“This clause should be removed. The Minister is not saying anything new. The act itself is flawed. How can a legislation, which seeks to make manual scavenging illegal have a clause, which states that men can be sent in but only in the presence of police personnel and safety gear? Why can’t they use jetting machines instead? Machines can be repaired. Human lives are lost. Have our leaders lost track of their priorities?” Narayana questioned.

The rule states manual scavenging can be allowed “in any circumstance, when it is absolutely necessary to have manual sewer cleaning, after the local authority has permitted to do so, after recording in writing, the valid reason for allowing such cleaning.”

This clause goes against the Supreme Court order, which says that even in case of emergency, human beings are not allowed inside sewers and septic tanks, activists say.

“What is this emergency situation? This Act itself is a joke. The Minister should think about amending it instead of enabling the contractors who deploy men without any care for their lives. It is because of this clause that out of the 80-odd cases reported in our state, there has not been a single conviction,” Narayana added.

While the Minister has said that the proposed legislation will be discussed with the Law Ministry for its approval, what he should instead be doing is to talk to sanitation workers and their families, and understand, if he doesn’t already, why exposing humans to toxic fumes in dark, enclosed spaces can never be justified.