In Telangana, sixteen families are yet to receive the promised compensation of Rs 10 lakh after the death of family members in manual scavenging incidents.

Family photo of Sudhakar, who died while cleaning a manhole
Delve Manual Scavenging Thursday, September 16, 2021 - 15:48

Manual scavenging has been prohibited by the Indian government since 1993, and the responsibility falls on the authorities to enforce the ban. Yet in an ironic yet tragic turn, 35-year-old Darshanam Abbaiah, working as a contract cleaner in the Nizamabad Municipal Corporation, died while clearing a drainage surrounding government institutions such as the Municipal office, Collector’s office and the District Court. Abbaiah, who belongs to the Madiga community, a Scheduled Caste, died in 2010 when he was asked to enter the manhole in the early hours of the morning to clean the sludge within it. And though it has been 11 years since his death, Abbaiah’s family has yet to receive their monetary compensation of Rs 10 lakh.

“We did not get a penny till date. With my monthly salary of Rs 10,000 I have been supporting my family. Since I am not educated, I never approached any government authorities demanding ex-gratia,” says Darshanam Taradevi, his wife. She also works in the Municipal Corporation as a sanitation worker on a contract basis.

“When my husband died, I was assured that my son would be given a government job. Even that promise is yet to be fulfilled. All assurances made are mere words, I have realised,” Taradevi says, dejected.

Like Taradevi, there are over a dozen families in the state who have not yet received compensation from the Telangana government. Among these families, a majority of them belong to the Scheduled Caste community. In 2010, Jalli Lakshmi lost her son Jalli Narsaiah, a sanitation worker employed by the Gram Panchayat in Nizamabad. “He was summoned by the authorities to clear a drain, and he did not return after that. He died of asphyxiation,” she says, “It has been more than a decade, but we are yet to receive any justice or compensation.”

Manual scavenging is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. While this caste-based practice was first banned in 1993, it was made a punishable offence in 2013, where anyone employing a manual scavenger, directly or indirectly, would be punished with imprisonment for a term or a penalty which may extend to Rs 50,000, or both. For repeat offences, imprisonment could span two years or a fine, which may extend to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Similarly, no person or agency shall employ, directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank, the Act states.

Since 2000, 36 persons in erstwhile Andhra, and now Telangana, have died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks, according to data from Safai Karamachari Andolan, a movement working towards the eradication of manual scavenging from India. Twenty of these families have received compensation of Rs 10 lakh, which they are entitled to as per a Supreme Court judgement from 2014. But the other sixteen have heard nothing from authorities.

“I have been struggling to get these families their due for over a decade, but it is still progressing at a very slow pace,” says K Saraswati, president of Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), Telangana chapter.   

The process of providing compensation to the families of manual scavenging victims was expedited in the state last year, after intervention from the Telangana State Legal Services Authority (TSLSA), who had learnt about the ordeal faced by kin through news reports. In 2020, the then Chief Justice of the Telangana High Court, Justice Raghavendra Chauhan, who was the patron-in-chief of TSLSA, ensured that nine families within Hyderabad under the jurisdiction of Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation received their dues. A total of Rs 75 lakh was distributed amongst the victims’ families. 

“Three families did not get the compensation owing to issues of their unavailability, but the rest of them got the compensation, thanks to the court,” says Saraswati. According to Saraswati, the TSLSA promised to procure compensation for the other 16 victims from the rural parts of the state. However, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to these efforts. “If not for COVID-19 pandemic, the others too would have gotten their compensation,” Saraswati says. 

Saraswati notes that the absence of an entity to oversee the welfare of sanitation workers and ensure that victims receive the compensation promptly, adds to the concerns “There is no uniform body in Telangana which would coordinate with all the district offices and municipalities, to make the process of getting the ex-gratia easy,” Saraswati criticises.

P Anjaneyulu, the administrative Officer of TSLSA who has been coordinating with the District Collectors regarding the compensation, told TNM, “I have written to the District Collectors of Nizamabad, Adilabad, Sangareddy, Nalgonda and Hyderabad, but there has been no response yet from Nizamabad and Adilabad.”  

Recently in Telangana’s capital, Hyderabad, two Dalit men died while cleaning a flood pipeline. Their deaths sparked a massive uproar, with political leaders from the opposition visiting the family members, and the government promptly provided them with monetary compensation. “Only when a death happens in Hyderabad and gets political attention, the government authorities are quick enough to act. Else we are forced to run around offices to get the compensation,” says Saraswati.

In August when National Commission for Safai Karamcharis member Anjana Panwar had visited Hyderabad, SFA had submitted a representation seeking their intervention to provide full compensation to the victim’s families, and also provide a One Time Cash Assistance of Rs 40,000 to the families.     

State Chairman of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Errola Srinivas also assured that he would make efforts to release the funds for the welfare of the families immediately.

According to Safai Karamchari Andolan, across the country, over 2000 persons have died due to manual scavenging since its prohibition in 1993, and nearly 1300 families are yet to receive the compensation. “Even among those who received the compensation, many of them got partial compensation of Rs 1 lakh or something. Only around 400 families, which is not 25%, have gotten the full compensation of Rs 10 lakh,” says Magsaysay awardee, Bezawada Wilson, the National Convenor of SKA. 

While the SKA is optimistic about getting the full compensation for these 16 families in Telangana, the stand adopted by the BJP-led Union government worries them. While deaths due to manual scavenging continue to take place, the Union government has claimed that there have been no manual scavenging deaths in the country for the last five years. In August this year, Union Social Justice Minister Virendra Kumar informed the Rajya Sabha that there were no manual scavenging deaths in India, while maintaining that 941 sanitation workers had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. But there is no distinction between manual scavenging — cleaning human excreta by hand — and cleaning of sewers, says Bezawada Wilson.

In fact, hazardous cleaning of sewers also is a punishable offence under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

“The deliberate distinction of manual scavenging deaths on a mere technicality is an attempt to manipulate the data of deaths,” alleges Bezawada Wilson. He argues that the definition of manual scavenging in the Act is very clear, but that is being deliberately manipulated. In the Act, manual scavenger is defined as, “A person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, 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 in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises....”

A person employed by providing devices and wearing protective gear will not be deemed a manual scavenger as per the Act. 

As per the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation’s survey conducted in 2013 and 2018, a total of 58,098 manual scavengers were identified across the country, and were provided with the One Time Cash Assistance of Rs 40,000, as part of the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. The highest number of manual scavengers were identified in Uttar Pradesh, as per the data.   

Though the 2013 Act made it a punishable offence to employ manual scavengers, the activists say that the police often fail to register the First Information Report by including the Act.  “There have been zero convictions of people who killed these men. Police often file a case under 304 IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), but leave out Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 from the case,” alleges Saraswati.

According to a report by Scroll, from 1993 to 2020, according to official figures, though 1,013 persons had died working as manual scavengers, First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed in just 462 cases, and 418 of them only invoked Section 304 (death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code. Forty-four cases were registered simply as accidental deaths, while only 37 cases had invoked the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.

“The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis’ role as a largely toothless non-statutory body is also a problem,” says Bezawada Wilson. “If we have to eradicate manual scavenging and prevent these killings, powers should be bestowed to these Commissions. But unlike a Human Rights Commission, the Safai Karamchari Commission has no powers to give directions to make any arrests. It is a nominated body through a notification by the Ministry of Social Justice,” he says. 

He also notes that the lack of Union government intervention is troubling in the fight against manual scavenging. Last year, the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment told Parliament that no funds for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers had been released by the Union government, saying that the previous allocation had not been utilised. It has been reported that the Narendra Modi-led government had not released new funds towards rehabilitation for many years. “No government wants to eradicate manual scavenging,” Bezawada Wilson says.

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