Despite a ban, why are individuals still cleaning septic tanks in Karnataka

Ninety manual scavengers have died in Karnataka since 2020. Despite the staggering number of deaths, it is a matter of concern that hardly anyone has been prosecuted for employing and engaging manual scavengers.
Dalit students forced to clean septic tank in Karnataka school
Dalit students forced to clean septic tank in Karnataka school

In January this year, the Karnataka High Court took a strong stand against the practice of manual scavenging in the state. One would call this a landmark move, but this wasn’t the first time the Karnataka High Court and the Supreme Court have come down on the government over the practice of manual scavenging which is legally banned. Manual scavenging has been a prohibited practice since 1993. Pourakarmikas being forced to clean manholes, students being forced to clean septic tanks, and workers being forced to clean sewage treatment plants show how despite efforts to eradicate it the practice still exists and continues to haunt us. More recently, in December 2023, students were seen being compelled to engage in manual scavenging, cleaning toilets and excrement pits in Kolar district.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was enacted in 2013 for prohibition and eradication of manual scavenging. It also laid down a broader definition of manual scavenging and envisioned the rehabilitation of those engaged in the practice. The Act also mandates legal action in case of violations. Though the Act was amended to provide for a survey of manual scavengers in the rural and urban areas, not much has been done in practice. Specifically, discrepancies and differences in data surveys have exacerbated the issue of identification and rehabilitation of manual scavengers in Karnataka. 

A 2023 survey conducted by the state-level survey committee indicates that there are 7,493 manual scavengers in Karnataka. According to the Karnataka Safai Karmachari Commission, 90 scavengers have died since 2020 while manually cleaning open drains, septic tanks, and manholes. Despite the staggering number of deaths, it is a matter of concern that hardly anyone has been prosecuted for employing and engaging manual scavengers, in violation of the Act. It is this anguish that the Karnataka High Court expressed, while strongly criticising the government for inaction on the deaths.

When the law and the courts are clear on a complete ban against manual scavenging, why do we find individuals still cleaning septic tanks today? Who should be held accountable for this? The Act imposes a complete embargo on any person, local authority or agency from directly or indirectly employing any person as a manual scavenger. There is also an explicit prohibition from engaging individuals for hazardous cleaning of septic tanks. What happens when government institutions have themselves failed to adhere to the Act? The deaths of workers subcontracted by government institutions while cleaning underground drainage pits, manholes, and sewage tanks indicate that our system falls short on the action to be undertaken on those responsible for it.

In September 2021, the Karnataka High Court warned district magistrates of contempt of court, stating that they failed in their responsibility to ensure the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The court directed the magistrates to create awareness among officials to follow the rules of the Act. It is imperative that state governments and all statutory bodies, including corporations and agencies under its control, ensure that manual scavenging is eradicated completely. As directed by the Act, the local authorities must also actively raise awareness against the illegal practice of engaging individuals in manual scavenging.

The problem with manual scavenging is not just the fact that it is a hazardous occupation health-wise but that it segregates an entire community based on caste, making it a discriminatory practice. This holds relevance as those who engage in manual scavenging are often from particular communities. For instance, a response by the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment in the Rajya Sabha in 2021 revealed that 58,098 people were involved in manual scavenging. Out of these, caste-related data was available for 43,797 people of which 97.25% belonged to Schedule Castes.

Therefore, authorities must also invoke penal action under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in manual scavenging cases, a concern also emphatically reiterated by the Karnataka High Court. Manual scavengers are invisible, not only because they do not have access to alternative employment opportunities but also because the activity itself is degrading.

The Government must conduct a re-survey to identify all manual scavengers in the state for two reasons. One, this will help identify communities that are currently engaging in and have historically engaged in the practice, to ensure that alternative employment opportunities are readily available for them. Second, even for those who may not engage in the practice, it is essential that they are helped to remove the stigma that is associated with the practice. The state government may in this regard create awareness among the general public for the same. The Act provides for a State Monitoring Committee to meet every six months to ensure the implementation of the Act. However, the government’s response indicates that this committee has hardly met.

On January 31, 2023, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Siddaramiah inaugurated the conference on rehabilitation and distribution of subsidies to identified manual scavengers in the state. He stated that strict legal action will be taken against those who employ others to do manual scavenging. But for a state where students were forced into manual scavenging under the pretext of punishing them or labelling it as some form of service, a lot has to be done as opposed to what is said. Every citizen has the right to live with dignity, a right that is guaranteed under Article 21 of our Constitution. The dehumanising practice of manual scavenging is highly iniquitous and infringes on the fundamental rights that our Constitution guarantees. With Karnataka claiming that manual scavenging has been eradicated, one would think that this dehumanising practice has been left behind in the past. But unfortunately, it has instead left us behind today.

When there can be viable technological advancements, why does this practice still continue? Is it owing to lack of opportunities, the failure of society to provide or the social exclusion? How many more lives do we need to lose for everyone to wake up on this discriminatory and dehumanising practice? The governments have failed to effectively prohibit this practice and continue to live in a state of denial. The refusal to acknowledge death and disease even after 75 years of independence and 30 years since the enactment of the Act makes one remember what Ambedkar had to say, “So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you.

Sneha Priya Yanappa is Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy working on urban governance, education and data & technology regulations. Sneha has previously written on urban governance and related issues.

Read TNM’s award-winning series, Exposing Manual Scavenging, here.

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