Even as India celebrated its Independence Day last August, Hyderabad witnessed the death of three manual scavengers after they entered a sewer to clean it.
Despite a lot of outrage at the time, several months later, it would seem things are back to usual.
A recent study conducted by Basthi Vikas Manch suggests that there are at least 10,000 people in the city even today, who lower themselves into raw sewage, as part of their profession.
The study also says that there are 30,000 people who are employed to clean public toilets manually.
This includes those employed to clean toilets at public places like railway stations and bus stops, along with those employed in the private sector, like schools and hospitals.
Another 50,000 people are employed by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) as Solid Waste Management (SWM) workers, the study notes.
According to the 'Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013', a manual scavenger is a "person engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta, before the excreta fully decomposes."
According to the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC-2011) data of manual scavengers released by the Ministry of Rural Development, a total of 553 manual scavengers were identified in both the Telugu states
Andhra Pradesh had around 388 identified manual scavengers while Telangana had 165.
On paper, Telangana claims that it has zero manual scavengers, even though it reported 1,57,321 dry latrines in 2015.
The study by Basthi Vikas Manch adds that Hyderabad has a sewer network of around 650km, which only covers 60 to 70% of the city.
"The rest of the city, i.e., 30 to 40% of the city relies on onsite sanitation like septic tanks and pit latrines. Additionally, 2,30,000 manholes are located around the city for maintenance of existing sewer lines," the study notes.
The organisation spoke to several workers and found that health issues like neck pain, back pain, skin irritation, skin infections, respiratory problems and stomach problems were common among them.
The study states that a whopping 90% of workers in Valmiki Nagar suffered from skin ailments which could be directly traced to their work, while another 67% of those surveyed, suffer or have suffered from Tuberculosis, Malaria and other such diseases.
In addition, the study points to a severe disparity between permanent and contractual workers, with contractual manual scavengers earning around Rs 8000 to Rs 12,000 per month. Salaries for permanent workers are significantly higher.
Almost all manual scavengers were noted to be alcoholics, as they would drink on an empty stomach in the morning, claiming that it would 'dull their senses' to do the difficult and inhumane work.
The men would continue drinking even after the work was done, according to their wives.
Many women that Basthi Vikas Manch spoke to, said that the men squandered their earnings on alcohol, cigarettes and gutka.
"The women take it in their stride or rather have conditioned themselves to the notion that violence is part and parcel of marriage or family life. They unflinchingly describe how they have been dragged by their hair, pulled, pushed and beaten up mercilessly by their husbands," the organisation observes.
"For the longest time, the Telangana government has not taken any steps. However, now it has come to realise the magnitude of the problem," says Saraswathi, who works with the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in Hyderabad.
The SKA, founded by Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson, has been working to end manual scavenging.
Saraswathi says that the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB) were the biggest 'culprits' earlier, but now seek to mend their ways.
"Since January, the HMWSSB has held a few meeting with stakeholders in the profession and is seeking to address how to tackle the issue. Wilson was also present. However, everything remains on paper for now," Saraswathi adds.
Saraswathi says that while the HMWSSB has strict rules not to use manual scavengers to clean a sewer or a drain, the contractors often violate the rule.
"Another problem is that even individuals hire workers with no experience to enter their septic tank or a sewer on the street outside their house, despite being educated and being aware that it is illegal," she says.
The study by Basthi Vikas Manch has made some recommendations to the state government, saying that it must conduct regular health check ups, provide instant compensation to the family of the deceased, provide better safety equipment, and also increase awareness on hygiene.
The SKA's aim is to ensure that no person should even enter a manhole.
"It is inhuman. People are dying for no reason. The HMWSSB should ensure that machines are used to clean the drain, and should levy heavier punishments on contractors and supervisors who fail to follow the rules," Saraswathi adds.