Karnataka sweeper ends life after being forced to clean sewage: Why manual scavenging persists in 21st Century India

Ananya Srivastava
·10-min read

With one legislation outlawing manual scavenging eight years ago and another in the pipeline, one would think that the inhuman practice having its roots in India's feudal past was behind us. But tragic incidents such as the recent suicide of a sweeper in Karnataka serve as jarring reminders that India's legislative and policy efforts to end manual scavenging have achieved little on the ground.

Narayana, a 37-year-old who worked for the Maddur Town Municipal Corporation as a sweeper, died by suicide on Tuesday after alleged harassment from officials, who had earlier forced him into a manual scavenging job and were facing an enquiry for the same.

Because it was a suicide and not a result of poisoning or drowning during cleaning -- a well-documented occupational hazard -- Narayana's death may not add to the official numbers, which are grossly underreported by the government's own admission. But it underscores the predominance of the dehumanising practice which is still largely a hereditary occupation, deeply linked with the caste system.

Narayana's story

According to a report in Times Now, Narayana had been forced to clean a sewage manhole with his bare hands on 2 November 2020. The incident had attracted media attention and had lead to an enquiry against the officials responsible.

However, according to Narayana's account, these officers had been pressuring him to state that he entered the manhole without any safety gear by choice.

Another report in The Times of India, quoted his coworkers anonymously to claim that the accused officials had stopped paying his salary for the past few months and had suspended him for petty reasons to pressure him into taking the blame for their alleged actions.

Narayana has named several top-ranking officials in the municipality, including the body's president Sureshkumar, chief officer Murugesh and health inspector Ghasim Khan in his suicide note.

Narayana's death sparked outrage among other contractual sanitation employees, who have been battling for fair compensation and a humane working environment. Karnataka Urban Local Bodies' Outsource Employees Union (KULBEOU) held the administration responsible for not taking timely action against the accused officers, claiming that Narayana would have been alive if appropriate action was taken. They have also announced a strike on 26 February to demand compensation for his family and strict action against erring officials.

Narayana is survived by his wife and three children.

Death an occupational hazard for manual scavengers

Severe gas poisoning is one of the most common causes of occupational deaths and illnesses among people manually cleaning human excrement from private and public dry toilets and drains. Sanitation workers who handle sewage and human excreta are exposed to dangerous gases such as hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and a wide variety of microorganisms and decaying organic matter that may lead to rapid loss of consciousness even resulting in death.

According to the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement lead by Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson to eradicate manual scavenging, the life expectancy of a person working as a manual scavenger is only 40-45 years, due to multiple health issues like hepatitis, cholera, meningitis, typhoid, cardio-vascular problems.

While official figures estimate total 774 deaths between 1993 and March 2019, SKA estimates that nearly 2,000 manual scavengers die every year in the sewers, due to exposure to poisonous gases. Include deaths that occur in septic tanks to this and the number would be even higher. These figures do not even take into account stories like that of Narayana's where the trauma, discriminaion and societal prejudice associated with occupation push people to suicide.

National Commission For Safai Karamcharis, a body formed by the Union Ministry of Social Justice, also acknowledges that the official numbers are a gross misrepresentation of the actual figures.

In its annual report for 2018-19, the NCSK has found that the concerned authorities generally show reluctance in taking responsibilities for the mishaps and blatantly excuse themselves by stating that the deceased person is not even employed by them. Resultantly these deaths are never considered by the state administration while compiling the data of sewer deaths. Hence they remain unreported and non-compensated.

Hiding in plain sight: >Why is manual scavenging still practised?

Inhabiting urban spaces could lead us to believe that manual scavenging is a rural problem. But data from both government-backed NCSK and private groups like SKA confirm that the largest violator of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is the Indian Railways.

According to a 2013 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Indian Railways ejects around 3,980 metric tonnes of faecal matter onto rail tracks every day. That's about one-fifth the weight of The Statue of Liberty. Whenever passengers use train toilets while trains are halted at stations, the excreta directly falls on the railway tracks beside the platforms, which is then cleaned by a human work-force.

The railways did deploy bio-toilets across 68,000 coaches (as per data available till 2019-20) but that is not without its own problems. According to a memo submitted to Northern Railways, these toilets are unfit for use in general compartments because of the heavy passenger traffic in these coaches. Furthermore, an IIT Madras study done between 2013-17 states that these bio-toilets do not eliminate the problem entirely: once the tank is filled, human excreta is allowed to drop down onto the tracks.

Another culprit is the Union government's Swacchh Bharat Abhiyaan, which though well-intentioned, seemingly fails to eliminate the need for human beings to clean the excrement of their own kind. The mission boasts that 99.5 percent of households in India now have a toilet.

However, according to a report published in Down To Earth, the toilets are connected either to twin pit, septic tanks with soak pit, single pits or sewerage lines. While the twin pit variety does not require human handling of faecal matter, the other two varieties require manual or mechanical extraction after a period of time. And with the low availability of suction pumps at the village level for mechanical extraction, it is obvious that most of these toilets in rural areas would be cleaned manually, the reports state.

According to the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2019-20, only 27.3 percent of the toilets surveyed have a double leach pit; 1.1 percent go into a sewer while all others empty into some form of a septic tank or single pits.

Another reason for the existence of manual scavenging is the continued usage of dry latrines in India. According to the 2011 census, there are 26,07,612 dry latrines in India. Manual scavengers are employed in cleaning these latrines.

However, urban drainage systems are just as big a contributor to this problem as rural free toilets built by the government. When city drains and manholes are clogged, humans are expected to enter into them and clear the clog. Manual scavenging is also carried out in private homes and in community toilets. This work not only forces people to wade in sewer water but often those engaged in this work die upon inhaling poisonous gases, according to SKA.

Why do people continue to do this work?

Multiple reasons. Coercion by dominant castes, local officers and authority figures; lack of opportunity and means to pursue other occupations; societal prejudice hindering attainment of any other form of gainful employment; or just sheer desperation to make ends meet.

There are documented instances of people from lower communities receiving threats if they refuse manual scavenging jobs.

A report by Human Rights Watch, which incorporated inputs from 135 people including those who currently or previously practised manual scavenging, quotes multiple instances where Dalits were threatened with social exclusion and financial repercussions from the upper caste if they stopped coming to clean their toilets.

One such story is of Munnidevi from Uttar Pradesh's Kasela village, where till the time of publishing of the report, Dalits cleaned toilets in exchange for food grants and other favours. Munnidevi stopped going to homes where she was not given any food but says she returned to work after her employers warned that she would not be able to enter community land to collect firewood or graze her livestock. "I have to go. If I miss a single day, I am threatened," she said.

Likewise, in November 2012, when Gangashri along with 12 other women in Parigama village in Uttar Pradesh's Mainpuri district voluntarily stopped cleaning dry toilets, men from the dominant Thakur caste came to their homes and threatened to deny them grazing rights and expel them from the village.

They called our men and said "If you don't start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up." They said, "We will not let you live in peace." We were afraid.

The HRW report notes that such threats have been particularly effective in binding communities to manual scavenging because the affected communities face extreme difficulty in securing police protection.

Narayana's case also highlights how authorities also ignore tenets of the Manual Scavengers Act and several judicial interventions, including from the Supreme Court.

A report in The Print outlines how judicial intervention drew a blank in many cases as state authorities simply could not produce an alternative to manual scavenging.

The report published in February 2020, states the Chennai water board when confronted by the high court, identified all the possible situations in which manual entry was unavoidable, and informed the court about the safety equipment that it had for such situations. In a similar case in Gujarat, the court asked for speedy measures to mechanise sewage operation and to provide safety equipment to people employed for these jobs in the interim. In the Delhi case, which is still ongoing, a defiant and evasive water board has more or less held off on the possibility of laying down binding principles to which it could be held accountable.

In fact days before Narayana's death, the Karnataka High Court had also directed the state to stop manual scavenging except under certain circumstances, and even then safety gear was uncompromisable.

Another roadblock in people leaving behind their manual scavenging jobs is the lack of social security in low-income households. According to SKA, 95 percent of people engaged in the physical handling of excreta are Dalits and women. The HRW report quoted earlier states that the households engaged in this occupation are often the poorest. And without access to a consistent income, families rely on the food handouts or daily wages received by this work for their daily survival.

To overcome these challenges the law provisions for rehabilitation of these workers through skill-development, one-time financial aids and loans for self-employment.

However, as Pragya Akhilesh, an activist working in the field, points out in her article in Down To Earth, the rehabilitation schemes lack provisions for intermittent hand-holding to ensure sustenance and not just immediate rehabilitation. On the other hand, the process of seeking a loan from National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation is so complicated and lengthy that it becomes almost impossible for hand-to-mouth wage earners to survive that process.

Among other things, she suggests an immediate reassessment of contractual employment of sanitation workers which makes workers vulnerable and that much harder for the government to make hiring agencies accountable.

Also See: 801 sanitation workers died cleaning sewers in country since 1993: National Commission for Safai Karamcharis

India's manual scavengers: Ugly truths of unsanitary sanitation work an open secret, law needs better enforcement

Bezwada Wilson wins Magsaysay Award: Meet the real Swachh Bharat activist

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