If the Chennai Mayor has his way, manual scavenging will be back. More than a year after the Tamil Nadu government issued a notification banning manual scavenging, Chennai’s Mayor Saidai S Duraisamy on Thursday announced that the city corporation could not depend on machines alone to desilt storm water drains and would require men to do the job. Duraisamy said the Greater Chennai Corporation will seek legal recourse to defy the ban on manual scavenging, reported Times of India.
With the civic body receiving much criticism for not doing enough to prevent the Chennai floods last December, the mayor said, “We have been instructed by Amma (J Jayalalithaa) to desilt drains on a war-footing,” reported TOI. He also went on to claim that manual scavenging is hazardous only when it comes to sewers and not in storm water drains. What the mayor, however, fails to highlight is that storm water drains in Chennai very often gets mixed with sewage.
Activists are outraged at the Chennai mayor’s attempt to bring back manual scavenging, despite the occupation being described as one of the “lowest, polluted and most degrading occupations,” by the Safai Karmachari Andolan. C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor of Madras Institute of Development Studies suggests the mayor should set an example by cleaning storm water drains. “He should get into a drain where human assistance is required and others will follow. Manual scavenging is not for a certain section of people according to the caste structure,” says Lakshmanan. The Chennai Corporation’s decision to go back to court over the ban will in effect make the civic agency culpable of propagating the caste system.
Activist and Change India director, A Narayanan, who petitioned for a ban on manual scavenging in the state, said the mayor’s statement reeks of a lack of political will. “They don’t want to take politically hard decisions,” he observes. Accusing the Chennai Corporation of not fulfilling its commitments in the last six months, Narayanan said the civic body was only engaged in “crisis management” without any thought to planning.
He points to the continuing problem of encroachments of water bodies, and illegal sewer connections. The Madras High Court had in February 2016, hauled up the Tamil Nadu government for not increasing fines for illegal sewer connections from the paltry Rs. 200, and set a deadline of June. The directive came after the Principal Secretary to the government in its affidavit stated that the increase in fines was “under active consideration” and involved legislative process for implementation. Despite the deadline, no effort has been made by the state government to increase fines.
Besides faulting the poor design of storm water drains, Narayanan says that Chennai Corporation had told the High Court that strict instructions had been given to ensure that men using super sucker machines for desiilting wore safety gear. “Even to use machines they need to use protective gear and were instructed not to enter drains. They can’t go back on this now,” Narayanan argues.
Warning of another flood this year, Narayanan says he will fight tooth and nail in court to ensure the ban on manual scavenging is not lifted.