Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years, with 59 deaths in 2019 alone.

Tamil Nadus dirty secret How the state exploits and hides its manual scavengers
Delve Dalit Issues Thursday, December 26, 2019 - 12:46

On November 12 2019, 25-year-old Arun Kumar, a resident of Chennai, died in a septic tank at the famous Express Avenue mall in Chennai. He had been hired to clean the tank and was attempting to rescue his brother, who had fainted from the toxic fumes, when he succumbed to the poisonous gas himself. The incident sparked outrage across the state over the inhumane practice of manual scavenging and made TNM take a deep dive into the subject.

Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years – from 2013 to 2018. The death count in the state stood at 144 – more than double the number of casualties reported by Uttar Pradesh, the next highest state. In 2019 alone, there have been 59 deaths in 35 incidents. And most of these victims are Dalits. Despite this, there have been no reports from states or union territories of people being convicted for manual scavenging.

Activists fighting to eradicate this practice tell TNM that it is a caste-based occupation relegated to oppressed communities in the state.

“They are made to do this work because they belong to the Scheduled Community. If you look at SC people, in the past, they used the skin of dead cows to make instruments," says D Samuel Velanganni, Tamil Nadu State Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan. "They also did degrading tasks at the homes of dominant castes, like removing cow excreta, removing dead bodies of dogs or cats or even faeces from their houses. Now even when the government hires them, they are used for this degrading work - cleaning septic tanks, drains, or faeces on the road," he adds.

According to Shreenath, a manual scavenger who was with Arun Kumar on the day he died, their lives are worthless than even the safety gear they were promised.

"They took us (to Express Avenue) and gave us masks and helmets. After they gave it, they took photos of us and told us to go inside. But before we went, they told us to remove the safety gear. When we asked (contractor Dhanapal) why, and said it will get dirty if we wear it inside. They just made us wear it for photos to show the mall official," he explains.

As per the law in India, the district and state-level officials are required to survey the number of manual scavengers, spread awareness and encourage them to declare themselves. Once identified, these workers are eligible for rehabilitation by the government. But according to those employed in this inhuman occupation, authorities are only working on silencing them.

In 2018, the government did conduct a survey. But according to activists and manual scavengers, it was flawed. Sadly, even possessing an ID card did not guarantee freedom from this hazardous occupation.

“Ten of us went to the place of the survey and gave our names. Three of us got the ID card, but seven others didn't but even after getting an ID card, we are still cleaning human excreta. Our superiors threaten us against telling higher officials that we have been identified," says Manikandan, a manual scavenger.

When confronted with these allegations, government authorities, however, denied them.

Watch:

 

Here’s the full transcript: 

Arun Kumar's younger brother Ranjith Kumar says, "I entered a septic tank in Express Avenue to clean it. Within five seconds, I started to feel dizzy and I fell. I don't know what happened there. My friends saw me fall and shouted. My brother then came running and jumped in to save me. He pulled me out but got affected by the gas (fumes). He fell unconscious. They tried a lot to pull him out. Everyone tried hard. Nobody could pull him out. 

The shit from your toilet and the rest of Chennai city is mixed here, in this dirty water.  Disgusting, right? 

You and I have to try hard not to look away – and yet, we’re all directly or indirectly responsible for sending people down these drains, making them clean these tanks with their bare hands, and in many cases, killing them…

And in that statistic of people killed in manual scavenging incidents...is 25-year-old Arun Kumar.  

Ranjith Kumar says, "We are from a Dalit family. Due to financial difficulties in my house, my brother and I stopped going to school at a very young age. We started working and two years back, a contractor (Dhanapal) came and told us that he is hiring people to clean septic tanks. He said he will give Rs.600 per person. It was because of the difficulty at home that we agreed."

On November 12, Arun, Ranjith and three others were given the job of cleaning a septic tank, in the famous Express Avenue Mall in Chennai. 

Shreenath, Arun Kumar’s colleague and a friend says, "They took us (to Express Avenue) and gave us masks and helmets. After they gave it, they took photos of us and told us to go inside. But before we went, they told us to remove the safety gear. When we asked (contractor Dhanapal) why, he said it will get dirty if we wear it inside. They just made us wear it for photos to show the mall official. "

While 5 men from the  Ice House area left for the task, only 4 returned

Arun Kumar died due to the toxic fumes in the septic tank that day…

Just like 59 others in just 2019… just in Tamil Nadu. 

Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years – from 2013  to 2018. The death count in the state stood at 144 – more than double the number of casualties reported by Uttar Pradesh, the next highest state. In 2019 alone there have 59 deaths in 35 incidents. And most of these victims are Dalits. Despite this there have been no reports from states or union territories of people being convicted for manual scavenging. 

Ranjith Kumar says, "They always call people from my caste (Dalit). Lot of men from my area go for this work. That is why we also went."

D Samuel Velanganni, Tamil Nadu State Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan says, "They are made to do this work because they belong to the Scheduled Community. If you look at SC people, in the past they used the skin of dead cows to make instruments. They also did these degrading tasks in the homes of dominant castes like remove cow excreta, removing dead bodies of dogs or cats or even feces from their houses. Now even when the government hires them are used for this degrading work - cleaning septic tanks, drains, or feces on the road."

As per the law in India, the district and state level officials are required to survey the number of manual scavengers, spread awareness and encourage them to declare themselves. Once identified, these workers are eligible for rehabilitation by the government. But according to those employed in this inhuman occupation, authorities are only working on silencing them.

Babu, a manual scavenger says, "Officials from the Tambaram Municipality came and asked if I work in septic tanks. I said yes, I do. They then came to my house and took photos. But after that we didn't get any ID proof or documents for the same. We went and asked them, but they didn't give any answers. "

Samuel says, "In 2018, the state government conducted a manual scavenging survey but they did not advertise it properly. They printed just 500 notices for the survey across Tamil Nadu, including Chennai. After we spread the news, about 2400 manual scavengers came and registered for the survey. But instead of rehabilitating those who registered, they were sent away without ID cards, intimidated in the name of verification and stopped from registering. If they record numbers properly, we could register over 1 lakh manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu."

34-year-old Manikandan was an employee of the Chennai City Corporation when he was first sent on an assignment to clean sewers in 2012

Six years later..it was with the hope of a better life for his family that he registered for the manual scavenger survey

Manikandan, a manual scavenger, says, "Ten of us went to the place of survey and gave our names. Three of us got the ID card, but seven other didn't but even after getting the ID card, we are still cleaning human excreta. Our superiors threaten us against telling higher officials that we have been identified."

When TNM placed these allegations before the Corporation Commissioner, he denied them.

Chennai Corporation commissioner G Prakash says, "The earlier survey was not flawed in any way. The proper protocol was given, the proper advertisement was given in the vernacular media and the local media as well. If your question is, have we left out some manual scavengers, no we have not. The disappearance of dry toilets and the coming of underground sewage systems, virtually cancelled the need for manual scavenging Employing more machinery and employing a systematic operations and maintenance of underground drainage systems will eliminate cent percent of this thing (manual scavenging)."

While the Tamil Nadu government maybe looking at long term measures, one way to eliminate manual scavenging is creating the right technologies There are reportedly about 15 innovations developed across the country to replace manual scavenging. According to reports, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is using 70 mini jetting machines that can access narrow lanes and smaller colonies to clear the choked sewer pipes. In Thiruvananthapuram, a group of engineers has designed a spider-shaped robot that cleans manholes and sewers with precision. In Tamil Nadu, however, contractors say the government has to subsidise these machines to make them affordable for daily use.

But along with this, has to come, a change in society...and for authorities and residents like you and me to ensure we don’t stand for this inhuman forced labour.

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