Over the last decade, the state of Tamil Nadu has gained notoriety for its increasing number of manual scavenger deaths and failure to prevent the inhuman practice itself, within its borders. And on Wednesday, when the Union government said the state ranked second in the country when it comes to the number of manual scavengers deaths in the last five years (43), it did not come as a surprise to residents. But the activists who spoke to TNM following the announcement by the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry in the Lok Sabha, allege that the numbers on ground are far higher than what has been reported in Parliament.
According to Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an NGO that has been working with manual scavengers across the country, their fact finding committees have recorded 55 deaths in the past five years in Tamil Nadu (2016-2020). As per the list made by SKA, which TNM has accessed, Tamil Nadu will rank number one in the list of manual scavenging deaths seen in the last five years, followed by Uttar Pradesh which has reported 52 deaths.
According to the list, Chennai has recorded the highest number of deaths with 12 people losing their lives to manual scavenging, followed by Thiruvallur with 10 deaths. The remaining districts including Kanchipuram, Dharmapuri, Nagapattinam, Thoothukudi, Coimbatore and Cuddalore have recorded deaths in single digits each
Samuel Velankanni, the State Convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan, alleges, â€śThe Tamil Nadu government has said that the state only has 43 manual scavenger deaths. However, we all know that the numbers are higher. They could be downplaying the number because admitting to having 55 deaths will put the state right on top of the list of sewer deaths in the country. The government might have reduced the numbers, even to at least stay second on the list .
For over five years now, the SKA has been alleging that the Tamil Nadu government is suppressing the number of manual scavengers in the state, and as a result, their deaths.
TNM has earlier reported on how the state government has failed to register and rehabilitate those involved in this abolished profession as per the Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
The SKAâ€™s records show that six adverse events were reported in the state in 2016 that claimed the lives of 11 men employed in manual scavenging. Two adverse events were reported in 2017 with four deaths, and six such incidents were reported in 2018 that claimed seven lives. In 2019, 11 such instances led to the death of 21 manual scavengers and six accidents were reported in 2020 that claimed 12 lives.
â€śThe government is trying to claim that there are lesser deaths due to manual scavenging but the eradication of the process is not possible if this approach continues,â€ť says Samuel. â€śWe now have to obtain the list provided by the state government to the Centre and check which deaths have been overlooked or omitted in this submission.â€ť
Maharashtra (34), Gujarat (31), Haryana (31) and Karnataka (24) have also reported a high number of deaths due to manual scavenging.