Safai Karmacharis Manifesto Demands Time Bound Inquiry into Sewer Deaths

Going by the number of sewer deaths, the government remains blind to the issue of manual scavenging. 


Errata: An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned the number of manual scavenging deaths as 600, instead of 369. This error has been corrected.


Right to Information (RTI) activist and an advocate, Shashank Singh filed an application on 31 January 2019 to request information regarding manual scavenging and the status of the government action to eradicate it. As per the response of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on 27 March 2019, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 mandates the chief executive officers of Municipality and gram panchayat to conduct the survey of manual scavengers in urban and rural areas respectively without any further directions. However, as of 28 February 2019, such surveys have identified only 14,476 manual scavengers in only 13 states of India. 

This figure is less than half of what the latest survey by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) has identified as the RTI response -- 34,380 manual scavengers. Out of these, Uttar Pradesh has 16,294, the highest number of manual scavengers in any state. Maharashtra has 6,387, the second highest number of manual scavengers in the country. Such high number was recorded despite the Maharashtra government declaring zero manual scavengers in the state. Other following states having high numbers of manual scavengers as per the NSKFDC survey include Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka. 

The RTI application also demanded information about the number of deaths due to sewer cleaning since 1993. The response disclosed that only 12 state governments and Delhi NCR have reported mere 405 sewer and septic tank deaths since 1993 till February 2019. This number is far less than other estimates and documentation of sewer deaths. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) has documented 123 sewer deaths between early 2017 and September 2018 while Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a manual scavenging community led advocacy organisation, has documented at least 300 deaths during the same period (Safi 2018). Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (RGA), another anti-manual scavenging organisation, has documented as high as 369 deaths during the same period (RGA 2018). 

The various state/union territory (UT) governments have failed to notice and document even those sewer deaths that get reported in the local and regional news. This raises serious questions on their willingness and commitment to end manual scavenging and sewer deaths. When many sewer deaths are not even registered by the government, the question of justice for those who died does not even arise. In its judgment in 2014, the Supreme Court mandated state/UT governments to identify the families of sewer death victims and pay each a compensation of Rs 10 lakh (Sathasivam 2014). But when victims’ names are not even noted by the government, how can their families ever receive this compensation promised to them? 

It is high time that the state/UT governments develop efficient resources and mechanisms to track, investigate, document as well as provide all that is promised to manual scavengers and their families. The response to Shashank’s RTI states that the compensation of Rs. 10 lakh has been provided only in 271 out of the 405 recorded cases of sewer deaths. The monitoring committees mandated as per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act and Rules, 2013 should be vigilant at least to the news reports of sewer deaths and be able to do an investigation within 30 days of an incidence. However, such active response mechanism can only be developed if the state/UT governments have strong determination to stop sewer deaths and manual scavenging. Unfortunately, that has been missing so far.

Safai Karmacharis Manifesto: Asking for Long Overdue Rights

For the first time ever, there has been a manifesto of manual scavengers for this Lok Sabha election. In this Safai Karmacharis Manifesto of 2019 released by SKA, manual scavengers have put forward some demands to overcome the barriers of caste, patriarchy, and manual scavenging, along with a demand for an unconditional national apology by the Prime Minister for the historical injustice done to them. Among other demands for separate ministry and 1% of the budget exclusively for eradication of manual scavenging, the manifesto asks for Right to Life-21 cards that are acceptable at all institutions and are enough to avail the provisions meant for manual scavengers. 

The Safai Karmacharis Manifesto alleges that many self-declaration applications of manual scavengers have been rejected by government, thereby denying them the provisions meant for them. It has asked for complete awareness among government officials about the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and its full implementation. Another demand is that district collector or district Magistrate should take the entire responsibility of any sewer death and must be named in the first information reports in such cases. The manifesto also demands that within three months of any sewer death, one dependent of the victim must be provided a government job and a house. It also rightfully demands that sanitation workers be given free access to healthcare.  

The SKA sent the Safai Karmacharis Manifesto, 2019 to different political parties asking them to take up the cause of manual scavengers. As a result, the Congress party has promised in its election manifesto to end manual scavenging in three years (Indian National Congress 2019). The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (2019) has also included in its election manifesto that it will work on removing the loopholes in the 2013 Act to eliminate manual scavenging and will do a timebound implementation of everything promised. Bharatiya Janata Party (2019) and Aam Aadmi Party (2019) have, however, not mentioned a word on manual scavenging in their manifestos. 

Shashank and some other activists with him are trying to highlight this drastic difference between the exemplary laws in writing and their poor implementation when it comes to eradication of manual scavenging and stopping sewer deaths. I also found in my study a similar gap in the promises on paper and the ground reality of manual scavengers in Mumbai (Dubey 2018). Bezwada Wilson, the founder and national convener of the SKA points out that the condition is so because “the death of manual scavengers does not burn the conscience and emotions of anybody in the country” (Thakur 2019). The problem is lack of will on the part of state/UT as well as central governments. 

On 27 April 2019, two more workers lost their lives to manual scavenging in Bengaluru (Hindu 2019). Five sanitation workers died on 3 May 2019, two in Noida (Mirror Now 2019) and three in Palghar Mumbai (PTI 2019). Three more sewer deaths were reported on 10 May 2019 in Thane, Mumbai (Badgeri 2019). Nobody knows whether their names would figure up in the government list of victims and whether their families would receive the compensation and other assistance they deserve. From what the numbers tell, the government remains blind to manual scavenging and sewer deaths. 

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