Three sanitation workers die while engaged in manual scavenging in Karnataka

The men were hired by the Ramanagara Municipal Corporation through a contractor, an associate of whose has been arrested.
Worker engaged to clean manhole in India
Worker engaged to clean manhole in India

In a tragic incident, three sanitation workers died after being engaged in manual scavenging on Friday, June 4, in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district. The incident took place in the Ramanagara town within Akkur police station limits. Similar to other cases of manual scavenging, the three workers were hired by the Ramanagara Municipal Corporation through a contractor to clean the public sewage system. Ramanagara Superintendent of Police S Girish identified the three deceased as Manjunath (32),  Manjunath (30) and Rajesh (32).

“First, one person had gone in and succumbed, following which the two others died while saving him,” the SP told TNM. “They died due to asphyxia due to lack of oxygen down there,” he added. Police said that one accused, Manoj, who is an associate of a contractor named Harish, has been arrested. Details of the first information report are awaited. This tragedy comes after the death of Narayana, a pourakarmika working for the municipality of Maddur town, who died by suicide after being allegedly forced to clean a manhole without safety equipment. Following the incident, two government staffers were booked and transferred.

On paper, manual scavenging has been illegal since 1993. However, the number of deaths due to this inhumane practice has not seen a major dip in recent years, due to the lack of enforcement of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, along with government initiatives to provide alternate livelihoods to the sanitation workers.

Mythreyi Krishnan, a lawyer based in Bengaluru, said the tragic death of the three men in Ramanagara shows the lackadaisical enforcement of the law. “The matter of manual scavenging is also being heard in the High Court. As per the law and the HC directions, penal action must be taken against errant officials,” she said. She also said that compensation has to be given to the families immediately. “But more importantly, there has to be a state-wide audit of how many mechanised cleaners are available in each district and how manual scavengers are rehabilitated. Action should be taken before lives are lost,” she added.

From 2018 to 2019, there was an increase of 62% manual scavenging deaths with 110 officially recorded deaths, according to figures collected by the Union government from states. Activists and collectives say the official number is an understatement of the ground reality.

The Karnataka High Court too, in December 2020, had noted the state government’s laxity in implementing the law in full letter and spirit. A bench led by Chief Justice AS Oka had noted that forcing one to perform manual scavenging amounts to violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution.

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