Pushing manual scavengers into death holes, when will Bengaluru learn?

This is the second known incident in which migrant workers, employed in manual scavenging in the city, have died.
Pushing manual scavengers into death holes, when will Bengaluru learn?
Pushing manual scavengers into death holes, when will Bengaluru learn?
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It is the peculiar reality of a modern city like Bengaluru that while Dalits continue to bear the brunt of socially declared reservation in manual scavenging across the state, migrant labourers too have been added to that list.

On Monday three workers, all migrants to Bengaluru, died after descending into a sewage treatment plant in a residential apartment complex in Bengaluru’s Electronic City area. Ranjan (32) was from Odisha, Jagadish Kumar (28) from KR Nagar in Mysuru, and Mahesh (30) from Nepal. Police say that the families of the deceased workers have been contacted and are on their way to claim the bodies. Their caste or community identities are not known. This is the second known incident in which migrant workers, employed in manual scavenging in the city, have died. On October 25, 2013, two workers from Bihar died in the Peenya industrial area.

Media reports on Tuesday morning said that a case had been registered under Section 304A of the IPC, for death by negligence. On Tuesday morning however, officers of the jurisdictional Electronic City police station told The News Minute that even Section 9 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 had been invoked.

Police said that apart from the contractor Umesh who hired the three workers, the president and secretary of the association of the apartment, too had been booked. Asked if any arrests had been made, the officer said on condition of anonymity, “We have arrested the contractor, we will arrest the association people too.”

While the police may appear to be doing their job, the reality on the ground is very different.

“There was excreta on their faces. I saw it myself. Only after I made a ruckus did the police invoke the Manual Scavengers Act,” Narayana, president of the Karnataka State Safai Karamchari Commission told The News Minute.

Asked whether the city police were given any training in the use of the Manual Scavengers Act, Bengaluru Police Commissioner Megharik told The News Minute, “No comment. Please speak to the DCP.”

Senior advocate and former Karnataka Public Prosecutor in the Karnataka High Court, BT Venkatesh said that even when training is given, it largely remains ineffective. “The ones who draft a complaint in a police station are of the rank of Sub-Inspector or the Head Constable. If training is to be given, it should be to them, and they are rarely trained.” He had made similar remarks during a training session on the POCSO Act for senior police officers of the rank of Inspector and above earlier this year.

Venkatesh added that if police officers refuse to register a complaint under Sections 3-6 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act when the workers involved are Dalits, they too are liable to be booked under the very same provisions. “Not knowing the law is no excuse,” he said, adding that this applied even to residents associations who had hired the workers.

Man and machine

Although manual scavenging in any form in prohibited under Indian law, people continue to hire sanitation workers to clean septic tanks in private residences, and urban local bodies either direct permanent workers to descend into manholes or outsource sanitation work to private persons, who hire workers on contracts to do the same.

In the last two months alone, a total of five deaths were reported in Karnataka in separate incidents. On November 28, two workers died in Tumakuru after they were hired by a Tumakauru Mahanagara Palike contractor.

Under the Act, manual scavenging is defined as the handling of human excreta in any form including in pits. Another section prohibits “hazardous cleaning” of a sewer or a septic tank without “protective gear and other devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions”. The instant case is a violation of both clauses of the Act.

“It is not about safety gear. Manual scavenging is prohibited; they (workers) are not supposed to enter the pit. There are machines for that,” said advocate Maitreyi Krishnan, who has worked extensively with the Act.

According to a report in The New Indian Express, 12 rodding machines purchased by the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board have been gathering dust for two years because they could not be transported to the areas where they were required. Each machine costs around Rs 50 lakh. Rodding machines can pass through roads, which are only around six feet wide.

Narayana says that the problem with the jetting and sucking machines, which are usually used to clean manholes is that they cannot pass through small roads, therefore making it inevitable for men to enter manholes.

Social reservation for Dalits

According to figures available with the Karnataka State Safai Karmchari Commission, between 2008 and 2015, at least 47 people have died cleaning septic tanks or the underground sewerage lines. Often, more than one death has occurred as labourers attempt to save a fellow worker who becomes unconscious after inhaling the poisonous mix of gases in these chambers.

Narayana says that 19,000 contract labourers and 3,800 permanent employees of the BBMP are risking potential death. Extended to the whole state, this figure rises to 35,000 contract workers and 11,000 permanent employees of urban local bodies.

“Ninety percent of these workers in the state are Dalits, and belong to the Madiga caste. Only in Bidar, it is the Valmiki caste and Belagavi, it is the Balagai sub-caste of the Adi Karnataka caste,” Narayana says.

Rights and Rehabilitation

Under the Act, sanitation workers are to be given protective equipment such as gumboots, gloves, masks, soap and a disinfectant like Dettol every month. “In theory it is there, but not practically,” says Narayana. “I’ve held review meetings in each of the 30 districts since I was appointed a year ago. There are 216 municipalities, 46 city municipal councils and 11 corporations in Karnataka. Nowhere is this provided.”

While part of the Act is to provide protection to the workers, the goal is to put an end to the practice. As the head of the Safai Karamchari Commission, Narayana also monitors the implementation of the Manual Scavengers Act, which makes it mandatory for the state government to identify and rehabilitate manual scavengers.

According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011, Karnataka has the fifth highest number of manual scavengers in rural areas at 15,375. According to a report in The Hindu, the state government claimed until 2013 that there were only 306 registered manual scavengers, of which 202 were in Bengaluru.

A circular issued by the government of Karnataka directs the formation of district level committees headed by the Deputy Commissioner to identify and rehabilitate workers. The committee includes various government officials such as the jurisdictional heads of police, social welfare department, railways, urban local bodies and civil society groups working on the issue.

Narayana however says that while in half of the state’s 30 districts, the committees have been formed, no meeting has been held until now.

Without these committees, it would be impossible to carry out the orders of the Supreme Court in a case filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan in 2003. The Supreme Court in March 2014 directed that every state and union territory identify workers who have died in manholes or septic tanks since 1993 and compensate them. Other relief measures in terms of jobs and education too have been prescribed.

Maithreyi said that the government was not ready to acknowledge the problem. “The idea is to identify and rehabilitate. The law is not just for when people die.”

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