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The untold story of India’s sewer cleaners, in charts

Between 1993 and January 2020, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) recorded 920 deaths of workers cleaning sewers based on data from state governments. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh accounted for half.Premium
Between 1993 and January 2020, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) recorded 920 deaths of workers cleaning sewers based on data from state governments. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh accounted for half.

Individuals as well as companies continue to illegally employ workers to clean sewers and septic tanks, with many dying due to asphyxiation. A lack of reliable data, riddled with inconsistencies in the government’s own numbers, makes the problem harder to solve

At least 17 people have died working in sewers in six separate incidents across India over the last one month. The deaths highlight the longstanding issue of illegal employment as manual scavengers and sewer cleaners, often by private employers and companies, with many losing their lives due to asphyxiation. A lack of reliable recent data only makes the problem harder to solve.

Between 1993 and January 2020, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) recorded 920 deaths of workers cleaning sewers based on data from state governments. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh accounted for half. However, states record only a fraction of the deaths, activists said.

“Over 2,000 workers have died cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1993 based on our data," said Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). “The government has all the machinery to find out the actual toll but continues to undermine the number."

The commission, whose data the government cites in Parliament, says it keeps updating its data as it receives more information.

Employing workers to clean sewers and septic tanks, or to work with untreated human excreta (manual scavenging)—both practices with historical links to caste subjugation—can invite prison terms under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Yet, more than 770,000 Indians work as sewer cleaners, shows data compiled by the SKA. The family of a worker who dies is entitled to a compensation of 10 lakh but 362 families out of the recorded 920 received only partial or no compensation, according to the government.

Missing offences

Even as deaths continue in sewers as employers flout the norms and fail to provide protective gear to workers, data is scanty on cases registered under the act. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported that until 2014, no cases were filed at all under a 1993 version of the law. Despite the new—stronger and rehabilitation-focused—law being passed in 2013, the NCRB continued to record offences under the 1993 law. Only two cases, both in Karnataka, were registered in 2015. In 2016, such cases were clubbed with ‘other special and local laws’. “Very few cases were reported under the act," noted the report. Since 2017, neither act has found any mention in the report.

“In many instances the authorities are reluctant to register cases related to sewer deaths and manual scavenging under the 2013 Act," said activist and trade unionist Pragya Akhilesh. “This helps them escape accountability."

Undercount problem

Activists say the cleaning of sewers is an extension of manual scavenging, rooted in caste hierarchies. The government recently told Parliament there were no reports of people currently engaged in manual scavenging, though surveys held across 18 states in 2013 and 2018 had found 60,440 such individuals. The 2013 law requires municipalities and panchayats to conduct such surveys.

The NCSK has called the Indian Railways the biggest violator of the Act with thousands employed for the task directly or indirectly. (The Railways denies the claim, citing bio-toilets, though activists say this is because they are employed through contractors as “sweepers".) The NCSK acknowledged the limited scope of the surveys and said only a nationwide survey would reveal the real picture.

The limited coverage is evident when compared to census data. The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 had found around 167,487 people working as manual scavengers. In most states, the census recorded significantly more manual scavengers than recorded by surveys.

Half-met measures

Faulty data means rehabilitation measures don’t reach all intended beneficiaries. Each identified manual scavenger is entitled to a one-time cash assistance of 40,000, skill-development training of up to two years and capital subsidy of up to 5 lakh for self-employment projects. While most who were identified in the two government surveys received the one-time cash assistance till 2020-21, only 30% got skill training and only 2% availed the capital subsidy. The actual share could be far lower if the surveys were an undercount.

A parliamentary committee report of 2019-20 also flagged the poor implementation of the rehabilitation schemes. However, activists feel the training measures do not really help with proper rehabilitation. “Many who receive skill training go back to sanitation work since they are not made aware of the employment opportunities for the skills they receive," said Akhilesh. “Skill training should not be implemented for just photo-ops but should be given keeping every individual in mind."

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