Manual Scavenging
With 144 deaths in five years, Tamil Nadu has more than double the number of victims from manual scavenging than Uttar Pradesh.
File Image/ Wikimedia-Claude Renault

Tamil Nadu has the ignominy of having recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years. The death count in Tamil Nadu stood at 144 – more than double the number of casualties reported by Uttar Pradesh, the next highest state.

This information was released by the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale on Tuesday in Lok Sabha to a series of questions posed by Mullapally Ramachandran, a Congress MP from Kerala.  

The MP had requested the Minister to provide the number of deaths of workers engaged in sewer cleaning in the last five years (till December 31, 2018).  In the list provided by the Union Minister, Tamil Nadu recorded 144 deaths from 2013 to 2018 followed by Uttar Pradesh which recorded 71 deaths in the same period. The Minister also stated that out of the 144 deaths reported from Tamil Nadu, compensation of Rs 10 lakh each have been disbursed to victim’s families in 141 cases. The reply also mentions that except Karnataka, Rajasthan and Delhi, no other state has filed FIRs on the employers for engaging people for manual scavenging.

This response by the ministry has come barely two weeks after two workers in Coimbatore died of asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank inside a housing colony.  

Failure to implement the law

D Samuel Velanganni, the Tamil Nadu State Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO that works in the domain of rehabilitation of manual scavengers said that according to a small survey taken by the NGO, there are around 3,000 manual scavengers spread across just eight cities in eight districts in Tamil Nadu. He adds that the state government is yet to carry out a survey to get the actual number of people employed as manual scavengers. As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013 the district and state level officials are required to survey the number of manual scavengers. The local authorities are also required to spread awareness in their areas to encourage manual scavengers to declare themselves and have their details verified.

Further, he also points to the strong caste-based segregation of labour in society, with almost all manual scavengers belonging to Dalit communities. “For example, if these people go and look for other jobs, there is every possibility that they will not be given those jobs,” Samuel added.  

“The biggest challenge in addressing the crisis is that even if the manual scavengers themselves take the initiative to get registered under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, government officers are not accepting the filled-up forms, which defeats the purpose of having the survey itself,” Samuel pointed out. Being registered helps manual scavengers avail benefits that are due to them from the government. According to Samuel, manual scavengers who have declared themselves to the government are entitled to get a one-time payment of Rs 40,000 as life support money, educational scholarship for their children and support for the family for identifying other employment opportunities.

How to fill the gaps?

There are alternatives to manual scavenging. The Kumbakonam municipality in Thanjavur district has shifted to using a fully-mechanised exo-skeleton robot to clean manholes in the area in June 2018. Eight months since its implementation, K Uma Maheswari, the Municipality Commissioner of Kumbakonam told TNM that the project is successful and is in full throttle now. “Right now, we have one machine for us which does the cleaning work. In a month, the machine cleans around 250 manholes in the municipality. Since workers are trained to operate the machine, there is no concept of depriving them of livelihood,” she said.

However, efforts like those by Kumbakonam municipality are few and far between. Apart from the governmental departments, a large number of private parties also engage manual scavengers to clean septic tanks and sewers. Referring to the fact that most deaths occur in private apartment complexes or establishments, Samuel said that when it comes to choosing between a suction pump in a lorry and human beings, employers tend to choose the latter since it is much cheaper. “A septic tank cleaning lorry charges anywhere from Rs 5,000 for a single session of cleaning, whereas the same job is done by human beings for Rs 1,000-1,500. So employers see cost factor and break the law,” he explained.

But do those people, who bring in men to clean septic tanks in their apartment complexes know that what they are soliciting is illegal and prohibited by law? Probably not, said Samuel. “It is a punishable offence and there are certain rules to be followed while human beings are employed to clean manholes or sewers. I am quite sure that employers don’t know the legal repercussions of breaking the law or the rules to be followed in case one is going to employ human beings,” he added.  

Some of the rules to be followed while employing human beings to clean sewers or septic tanks are providing them with adequate protective gear, a minimum of at least three employees to be present in the team of manual scavengers, at least one person who is trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation should be immediately available etc. A basic inquiry about the recent deaths would make it clear that none of these rules were followed by those who engage men to clean septic tanks.

“It is important that severe action be taken on deterrents to this law since it is a matter of bringing those people out of this job and giving them dignity. Hence, I think government must do more and be proactive than just giving out compensation after the life is lost,” Samuel rued.