Lost in filth: Manual scavenging deaths keep piling

Lost in filth: Manual scavenging deaths keep piling

Courtesy : Agencies21/09/2018 09:56

As the death of five people inside a septic tank in Chhattisgarh created ripples across the country, the focus has again shifted to the welfare of the safai karamcharis and the lack of initiatives taken by the government to end the “inhuman practice” of manual scavenging. 

According to the numbers gathered by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), on an average, one person has died every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country since January 1, 2017.

NCSK is a statutory body that was set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers and as per its estimates, which are mostly based on newspaper reports and numbers supplied by a few state governments, 123 people employed in hazardous forms of manual scavenging lost their lives while at work since January 2017.

In the last one week six people died in two separate incidents in the National Capital Region alone, and officials involved in the exercise admit that the actual number of fatalities could be more than what the data suggests.

“The death count is based on figures we could collate from a few states and mostly English and Hindi newspapers. There might have been several instances of similar stories in regional language papers which we weren’t able to account for,” said an official involved in the exercise.

Of the 28 states and seven union territories, the NCSK data has reported deaths from only 13 states and UTs. This is evident in the reported instances which are high in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Gujarat, in that order.

On the other hand, the NCSK data shows Maharashtra as having had just two deaths in this period. As per the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011, rural Maharashtra alone has 65,181 households where at least one person is employed as a manual scavenger, the highest in the country, accounting for 35 per cent of the total 1.82 lakh such households in rural India.

SECC data doesn’t include urban India where sewer cleaning is more frequent. Madhya Pradesh, the state with the second highest number of manual scavenging in its villages at 23,105, as per SECC, doesn’t show any deaths in the NCSK data.

“We have repeatedly asked states to identity those involved in these jobs but the states deny the existence of manual scavenging as the practice is banned under law. As a result, in many cases, the families of the dead don’t even get the compensation,” says NCSK chairperson Manhar Valjibhai Zala.

According to data and post-mortem reports maintained by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), the actual death count since January 2017 is about 300.

“Their deaths are under-counted and so are their lives. Even the National Crime Records Bureau was agreeable to our suggestion that they should document the deaths separately. But nothing has happened on the front, either,” said Bezwada Wilson, founder of SKA.

“The Social Justice Ministry, which is in charge of this subject, mostly deals with the issue of compensation post deaths and rehabilitation of the handful identified as doing this job,” said Wilson.

 As per NCSK data, the Rs 10 lakh compensation, mandated under law in case of manual scavenging deaths, has also been paid in only 70 of the 123 cases.

“Ministries such as Housing and Urban Affairs should be looking into the complete mechanisation of sewage cleaning, which is the only way to eliminate the practice of getting people to clean it manually. But they have never taken responsibility for the deaths,” Wilson added.

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