Union govt says no manual scavenging deaths in 2023, activists slam misleading data

Safai Karamchari Andolan national convener Bezwada Wilson told TNM that this data is a gross underestimation of the number of manual scavenging deaths in India.
A person cleaning inside a tank
A person cleaning inside a tank
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Only nine deaths of “cleaning workers” who died while working in hazardous conditions such as cleaning septic tanks or sewers have been recorded across India in 2023, as per the latest data tabled at Lok Sabha by the Union government. The data also says there have been no deaths due to manual scavenging in India, which is in stark contrast to the deaths reported and recorded by the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) — a movement working towards the eradication of the practice in the country.

The data was tabled on June 25 by Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, while answering questions raised by Lok Sabha members Dr A Chellakumar from Krishnagiri, K Sudhakaran of Kannur, and Dr Amar Singh from Fatehgarh Sahib. The Members of Parliament (MPs) had asked the Minister seven questions, including the budgetary allocation made during the past five years towards the elimination of manual scavenging, total number of cleaning workers killed in sewers in the last five years, and if the government has plans to implement technology to eliminate manual scavenging.

It is to be noted that though the act of cleaning sewers and septic tanks technically falls under the category of manual scavenging, it is not taken into account due to the narrow definition provided in The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. According to t,he Section 2(g) of the Act, a “manual scavenger” is defined as a person who manually cleans, carries, disposes of, or handles human excreta in any manner in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or a pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or other such spaces or premises. This does not include a sewer or a septic tank.

The Act separately defines “hazardous cleaning” of a sewer or septic tank as “manual cleaning” by a worker without the employer providing them with protective gear, other cleaning devices, and without following safety precautions.

So as per the Minister’s reply at the Lok Sabha, there have only been nine deaths this year of “cleaning workers” due to “hazardous cleaning of sewer/septic tanks.” According to the data provided for the past five years, a total of 339 persons — all “cleaning workers” — have died between 2018 and 2022. In 2023 (no month specified), nine deaths were recorded from three states — Maharashtra (5), Gujarat (3), and Jharkhand (1).

Minister Athawale also responded to questions raised by MPs P Ravindhranath and Feroze Varun Gandhi, who sought details of manual scavengers in India and if any case has been registered against persons employing manual scavengers. He said that there was “no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging in the country,” and that no report has been received on any such cases registered.

Data gross underestimation, say activists

According to activist and SKA national convener Bezwada Wilson, this data is a gross underestimation of the number of manual scavenging deaths in India. Speaking to TNM, he says that there have been at least 57 such deaths across India this year as per the records of SKA. According to the data provided by SKA, the highest number of manual scavenging deaths has been recorded in Maharashtra (10). In the south, Tamil Nadu recorded six deaths, Karnataka two, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana one each, while no deaths were reported in Kerala.

In an official statement, SKA said it was unfortunate that the “government has once again lied about the deaths in sewer and septic tanks.” It also said the total number of deaths in the past five years was also “not factual” and “reflects the apathy” of the government.

Calling the Minister’s statement that there was no manual scavenging in India “false and misleading”, the SKA said the country cannot be declared free of manual scavenging when so many citizens are being killed in sewer and septic tanks. The organisation pointed out that this casteist practice is prevalent across the country and demanded that the Union government present correct facts in front of the nation and the steps taken to prevent such deaths. It also alleged that the government was “putting more efforts on fudging the facts” instead of trying to stop such killings and making this country free from manual scavenging. This is “highly deplorable”, it added.

In May this year, TNM reported that at least five persons employed in manual scavenging died within a span of 18 days in Tamil Nadu. TNM had also reported the incidents of two youngsters dying while cleaning the sewage treatment plant at an apartment complex in south Bengaluru.

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