Manual scavenging on campus: Madras University denies allegations

Visuals show a woman questioning workers entering a drain and cleaning it. One of the workers can be seen emerging from the drainage pit with a bucket of waste.
Manual Scavenging in Madras University
Manual Scavenging in Madras University
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The Madras University is alleged to have engaged workers for manual scavenging on its campus on Friday, August 4. Visuals of the incident showed a woman questioning workers getting inside a drainage and cleaning it. Three workers are seen working, with one of them emerging from the drainage pit with a bucket of waste, which is carried away by another worker. The woman can be seen telling them that it is illegal and dangerous for a person to get inside and clean the drainage, but the workers continue working. None of the workers are seen wearing protective gear.

The university refuted the allegations and claimed the workers were clearing bottles clogging a drain in front of a university canteen and work was stopped as soon as it was brought to the notice of the management.

Speaking to TNM, a student confirmed that the incident took place near a canteen close to the distance education wing. “The woman is a student of distance education and once she raised the alarm, the workers closed the drainage and stopped working. But we were told that the work resumed a short while after that,” the student said. Another student also said that the work was temporarily halted but later resumed.

Vice-Chancellor Prof S Gowri told TNM there was no manual scavenging inside the campus. “It was a drain located between a canteen and the distance education, where the wastes from the canteens go. Usually, the Corporation comes and cleans it, but there was a delay this time, despite our people informing them. Since it was overflowing, some workers went inside to unclog the drain blocked by bottles. But some people in our university cautioned them and they stopped immediately,” he said and added that he was not aware of who hired them and that an inquiry was underway.

He also denied that the incident was connected with the visit of President Droupadi Murmu. “The President is coming to Anna University. The entire cleaning work on the premises is ahead of the NAAC [National Assessment and Accreditation Council] visit, as the mock team suggested cleaning the campus. The President is not at all visiting this campus,” he said. During NAAC visits, the team of members validate, verify and assess the institution and also give the institution a score. President Murmu is on a four-day visit to Tamil Nadu and Puducherry between August 5 and 8. She will address the gathering at the convocation of the University of Madras on August 6.

According to The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 201,3, Section 2(g) defines a “manual scavenger” 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. It also states that a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of “devices” or “protective gear” will not be considered 'manual scavenger'. This narrow and ambiguous definition is utilised by employers to hire workers to do manual scavenging.

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