Why one sanitation worker continues to die every five days in Swachh India | India News – Times of India

In February, 37-year-old Narayana, a municipal sweeper in Karnataka, died by suicide. He had been forced to clean a manhole with his bare hands, and to add to this indignity, civic officials in Maddur pressured him to tell the inquiry committee that he did it voluntarily. It was this reported harassment by officials — who had docked his salary and placed him under suspension — that drove him to breaking point.
Like Narayana, manual scavengers continue to die with sickening regularity across the country. On March 26, two workers died while cleaning a septic tank in an East Delhi banquet hall. In February, four sanitation workers asphyxiated to death while desilting a sewer line in Kolkata’s Kudghat, while three men died cleaning a septic tank near Chennai on February 14. Between 2016 and 2019, the government has recorded 282 deaths but activists say that the actual numbers are far higher. On an average, one sanitation worker dies every 5 days according to research by NGO Rehabilitation Research Initiative (RRI) based on fieldwork and interviews with the manual scavenging community.
CONVICTION RATE IS LOW
But beside the occasional news report, why isn’t anything done although there has been unprecedented priority given to sanitation under the Swachh Bharat Mission since 2014? By 2019, the government had already spent over Rs 57,000 crore to build nine crore toilets. Researcher and activist Sheeva Dubey, who has been studying the condition of sanitation workers in Mumbai since 2015, says money has been spent on infrastructure but not on people who are involved in the process of cleaning. “In most cases, the work to clean a clogged drain or septic tank is contracted privately by a housing society or a company. There is no provision for safety equipment or emergency assistance. Often if there is a death the first responders, usually the police, do not even bother to register a case and write it off as an accident,” she says. Centre for Policy Research fellow Arkaja Singh, who has been working on the issue of sanitation labour and rights of manual scavengers, recalls a case when three sewerage workers died in April 2017 in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. Though the sewerage line belonged to the Delhi Jal Board, it distanced itself saying that the workers had not been contracted either by the DJB or its contractor. “There was no liability proved for anyone except for the workers who died,” she says.
Ironically while India was under lockdown, sanitation workers were expected to continue working whether it was to dispose of hazardous waste like masks, PPEs of patients or cleaning drains and pipelines in housing societies.
SLOW ADOPTION OF BOTS
People continue to do this hazardous work despite technological advancements. In 2018, Kerala-based startup Genrobotics developed a robot to clean septic tanks and manholes. Priced at Rs 40 lakh, the robot can be customised to fit each city’s manholes and unclog 10 a day without any human intervention. “The technology is cost-effective,” says co-founder Rashid K, “and one robot is able to clean 200 manholes in a month.” So far the company has collaborated with municipalities in 14 states and provided over 65 robots to cities like Indore, Gurgaon, Coimbatore and Mumbai. But progress has been slow. Lack of political will and corruption in outsourcing large sanitation contracts act as impediments. The lack of a well-laid sewerage system compounds the problem — in many places in the city, it is not unusual to find sewage, storm water drains and open drains interacting with each other so that waste includes not just fecal matter but stones, debris, plastic and silt that require human intervention. There are also urban poor spaces that are not serviced by public authorities.
COMPENSATION DELAYS
In 2014 the Supreme Court laid down a principle of providing Rs 10 lakh as compensation for every sewer death since 1993. However, activists say that there have been very few cases where compensation has been given. Sanjana Pawar, 25, whose husband Sachin died while cleaning a clogged pipeline in Mumbai’s Shrinagar Sakinaka, has been waiting for claims since 2017. Sachin and his friend Ajay Kunchikorve choked to death within minutes of each other. “The man who had contracted them to clean the pipeline denied it. We have no proof that he was the one who employed my husband,” Sanjana says. RRI founder Pragya Akhilesh, who is also part of the Safai Karmachari Bhim Dal Union, says, “Some contractual workers do get the amount of Rs 10 lakh but the process is very cumbersome as it takes so many rounds to government offices. Also, in certain cases next of kin get less than Rs 10 lakh without any explanation.”
MALAYSIA SHOWS THE WAY
CPR’s Singh says that apathy towards manual scavenging deaths will continue till there is institutional investment and commitment. She cites the example of Malaysia that shifted from manual cleaning to a mechanised system of cleaning sewage. Malaysia has individual septic tanks, similar to India, and has invested in creating awareness among citizens and mechanising the process of cleaning the tanks through companies that are strictly monitored. Until we take similar steps people will continue to die, she says.

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