In yet another violation of laws, three workers were engaged in Bengaluru, allegedly in the life threatening and inhumane practice of manual scavenging to clean an underground drainage pit without any protective gear. Worse, the alleged violation was by a contractor of an agency working for the Bangalore Smart City Project.
The issue came to light on the morning of Monday, October 11, when lawyer-activist Vinay Sreenivasa spotted the three men going inside the pit near the Infantry Road and Union Street junction by the Shivajinagar Sub-Registrarâ€™s office. Under the area-based development plan, Bangalore Smart City is remodelling the roads in the locality following the TenderSure model. The work was stopped after Vinay raised an alarm with the contractors about the illegality and the potential threat to life.
Videos shot by Vinay show one of the three men going inside the pit with water reaching chest level and drawing out water which was seemingly mixed with sewage. He also tagged Smart City Managing Director Rajendra Cholan (IAS), the Bengaluru City Police Commissioner Kamal Pant in his tweets where he shared videos of the same.
Hello @BLRSmartCity_MD , @BBMPCOMM this gentleman has been made to go into this new age hole on infantry rd(no gloves boot ). He says he is clearing rainwater. Apartment says drain is blocked. I hope you know manual scavenging is prohibited. Act now pls cc @CPBlr pic.twitter.com/d0TJ2Hdvbvâ€” vinaysreenivasa ŕ˛µŕ˛żŕ˛¨ŕ˛Ż (@vinaysreeni) October 11, 2021
The workers who were made to do manual scavenging work were employed by Amrutha Constructions, a Smart City contractor after residents complained that the underground drain passage was blocked. Speaking with TNM, Harsha Gowda, one staff working with the contractor, claimed the workers were hired to remove some concrete debris which had blocked the drain and there was no sewage. He claimed that the work could not have been done with machinery. However, the the cover of the pit itself stated that it was a sewer. Vinay and his colleague had submitted a formal complaint citing other irregularities and alleged misbehaviour of the contractor's staff.
When TNM reached out to Smart City officials, they did not assure any legal action against the contractor. Kodanda Reddy, the Executive Engineer, apologised and said that he will instruct the contractor to not repeat the act. Smart City MD Rajendra Cholan told TNM that he has ordered a probe into the incident and instructed all contractors to comply with the Manual Scavenging Act.
While manual scavenging has remained illegal across the country since 1993 (Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993), there has been no strict implementation of the updated Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 by government agencies.
In December 2020, the Karnataka High Court had strongly criticised the Karnataka government for â€śhardly any prosecutionsâ€ť and lack of enforcement of the Manual Scavenging Act as despite the death of such workers being reported year on year. In September 2021, the High Court again warned district magistrates of contempt of court for not following the law.
Activists have also pointed out how state governments and local authorities have failed to carry out audits on availability of mechanised cleaners in each district and how manual scavengers are rehabilitated. Since 2015, there have been at least 43 incidents where workers engaged in manual scavenging have died in Karnataka, according to a public interest litigation filed at the Karnataka High Court. The latest tragedy was reported in June, where three sanitation workers who were subcontracted on behalf of the Ramanagara Municipal Corporation died due to asphyxia after they went to clean a sewer.