Activists of various political parties and organisations, including a large number of students and youth, participated in a rally in New Delhi, at the Parliament on September 25, 2018, to protest against the deaths of manual scavengers working in sewers, in different parts of the country.
The protestors carried banners with slogans which read: “Stop killing us!”, “Fifty die in sewers every month, kiska saath, kiska vikas?”, “Mangalyaan goes to sky, people in sewers forced to die!”, "People die in sewers, what kind of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan?", etc.
The protestors included several manual scavenger workers and family members of people who have died cleaning sewers and septic tanks. They recounted the horrible experiences they have to face daily and hourly and the inhuman treatment they are constantly subjected to by the state authorities. They described their abject poverty, the caste discrimination and attacks they face and the desperate conditions which compel them to continue this work. They pointed out how there is no proper investigation carried out by the state authorities when these deaths take place. Instead, every attempt is made to cover up the criminality of the state and the workers’ families are even denied any compensation.
Speakers at the rally exposed the hollow claims of the government of promoting “Swachhta”, when it cannot even provide a life of human dignity to the lakhs of workers cleaning our villages and cities. They pointed out how the Indian state claims much technological advance but cannot even provide proper equipment and safety gear to these workers. They called for steps to take the movement forward, to highlight the plight of the manual scavengers and to put an end to this inhuman practice.
In the last two weeks alone, six deaths of manual scavengers have been reported in the National Capital Region while another five such cases were reported from Chhattisgarh.
Manual scavenging is one of most hideous practices prevalent in Indian society. It is the practice of manually cleaning human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It is carried out using the most rudimentary tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets, using bare hands. The practice of manual scavenging is, at the same time, a horrible indictment of the caste system in India, in which only the poorest people of the lowest castes – dalits – are expected to do this work.
Manual scavenging was officially banned in India, nearly 46 years after independence, only in 1993. Yet, 25 years later, this inhuman practice is still widely prevalent all over the country. In 2013 the government passed the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, following which it claimed that the actual number of manual scavengers would be documented and steps would be taken to rehabilitate them. But to date, there are no definite official figures of the actual number of people involved in manual scavenging. According to Census of India 2011, there are 740,078 households across the country where this is practiced, which include a large number of women in the rural areas. These figures are grossly understated, according to social activists.
Workers involved in manual scavenging, particularly in cleaning sewers in the cities, are forced to work in the most hazardous, dehumanizing conditions. They are provided no kind of safety gear at all – no special clothing, gloves or boots, no masks to protect them from the deadly fumes emanating from the sewers. According to reports of a camp held in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year for registration of manual scavengers, they are paid a pittance – in cities anything from Rs. 40-90 per day; in rural areas no cash, only two rotis per day and some grain every six months or so. There are regular reports of workers dying while working in the sewers. But despite the laws and official claims, the practice continues openly, with the full knowledge and sanction of the officials of the state. The vast majority of workers in manual scavenging have no other means of livelihood and are forced to carry out this inhuman work, simply to keep themselves and their families alive.