Laws, loopholes and violations: Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Sohini Ghosh
Seven people including three hotel staff choked to death after entering a septic tank outside Darshan hotel in Dabhoi in Vadodara district. (Express Photo)

In 1993, the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narsimha Rao government drafted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act,1993. However, it did not have penal provisions or provisions related to rehabilitation and compensation. It lacked in implementation, too.

In September 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, was formulated. The new act banned all manual cleaning of excrement as well as cleaning gutters, sewers, and septic tanks without protective gear. It further established that any such act is dehumanising, which was not the case, in the act of 1993, says advocate Hirak Ganguly who has been representing an Ahmedabad-based NGO s 2016 public interest litigation (PIL), seeking proper implementation of the Act in the state, at the Gujarat High Court. The Act also provided penal provisions and compensation, alternative livelihood support, housing assistance and scholarships for children of manual scavengers.

However, the recent incidents, including the one at Dabhoi, where workers died after inhaling poisonous gases, violated the basic provisions of this law, considered stringent. Neither were the victims in protective gear nor was the cleaning taken up before 6pm, as stipulated. Also the contract system by civic bodies for cleaning gutters provides them an alibi in the event of a mishap.

Jeetendra Rathod, working with the Manav Garima Trust, an Ahmedabad-based NGO, explains, The 2013 Act largely brought three things in focus. One, to prohibit manual scavenging altogether. Second, to demolish all dry latrines. Both these were in fact made criminal offences. A third aspect was rehabilitation. This involved the government to conduct a survey of such workers involved in this practice or were involved in the past, provide them with identity cards and one-time cash assistance, as well any additional support that may be required by them.

PROVISIONS INSUFFICIENT

The 2013 Act did not provide sufficient provisions to prohibit employment as manual scavengers or to rehabilitate those who have been involved in this work, primarily a caste-based occupation, involving the Valmiki community for generations.

Krushnakant Parmar, who is employed with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) as a sanitation worker supervisor with the Naranpura ward, said, Sanitation workers under the direct payroll of AMC are not asked to go down gutter lines or septic tanks. They only work in the capacity of supervisors. The dirty work is done by those employed by private contractors.

Most urban local bodies such as Municipal Corporations as well as municipalities have given out contracts to private companies to undertake cleaning of septic tanks and storm water drainage tanks. Technically then, these private companies employ persons, to enter a drain if necessary. While the 2013 Act says that any such work involving a person entering a manhole must be done before 6 pm, recent incidents have shown blatant violations with men entering manholes or storm water drains, minus any safety gear, post-sunset, as late as 1am.

Parmar adds, Since AMC is technically not employing any manual scavenger or sanitation worker who has to enter a manhole, they hide behind this technicality to not keep an inventory of the mandatory 54 items of safety gear/equipments. While taking a tour of the Naranpura ward office, The Indian Express could find long steel rods and buckets as the only equipment used to clean choked sewers.

A caveat the urban bodies have frequently used is, We are not responsible as such incidents have not occurred in our watch. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the contractor to provide with safety equipment and ensure the general well-being of the sanitation worker. In case of violation, we have provisions to penalise the contractor.

In the second half of May, four contractual sanitation workers with a private firm died of asphyxiation after inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning a storm water drain pumping station, owned by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) in Odhav. Municipal Commissioner Vijay Nehra said, They were not sanitation workers, not manual scavengers and these are not sewage lines. Thereby, this unfortunate event does not fall under the purview of the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act. The Act applies where sewage lines are involved. This was a storm water pumping station…

Parsottam Vaghela, who has been working for the rehabilitation and rights of manual scavengers for the past 25 years, and founder of the city-based NGO, Manav Garima Trust, said, Technically yes, it was a storm water pumping station, but since the workers fell unconscious after inhaling poisonous gases, it implies that the storm water drain would have been either connected to a sewage line or leakage from the sewage line must have entered the storm water pumping station. The very fact that a person was asked to enter it minus safety equipments is illegal.

VK Mehta, deputy municipal commissioner with the AMC, looking after water and drainage project, said, We give out contracts for operation and maintenance purposes. Providing safety equipments is the contractor s responsibility. Otherwise AMC has multiple machines such as jetting machines and we do not put anyone inside a manhole.

PASSING THE BUCK

AMC says it is not their responsibility to provide safety equipments due to the contractual nature of work. The corporation, however, adds that in case of violation by the private contractor, it takes action. This action may range from a warning, a notice or blacklisting of the company, though AMC officials remain wary of providing details on the actions taken so far against those found flouting the norms under the Act. While this caveat is commonly used, the Act largely states that the owner of a sewer or drain is the responsible authority, said advocate Hirak Ganguly.

The responsibility for deaths of sanitation workers who enter a manhole of private gated societies, while working as daily wage labourer, at an inpidual capacity, without any association with a private company or urban local body, remains a grey area.

Vaghela says, For such complaints regarding cleaning drainage or sewers, including residential societies, the AMC authorities must be notified who are then supposed to send in their personnel. But people are not always aware of the due process. Ensuring that a manual scavenger has the necessary safety equipment then ideally becomes the responsibility of the chairperson or secretary of the society, that is the chief executive authority s responsibility as per the Act.

When AMC officials were asked about how many such private contractors were on their roster, they were unable to provide the data. While records show 50 deaths between 2013 and April 2019 across the state, the actual numbers may be more. Parshottam Vaghela points out, Even after the 2013 Act, many such deaths were recorded as accidental death . After repeated representations to then state police chief Geeta Johri, it was only in June 2017, that a notification was circulated to all police stations, instructing officers to register such deaths under the appropriate sections of the 2013 Act.

On the aspect of rehabilitation, the Manav Garima Trust filed a PIL in 2016, in the Gujarat High Court, following non-payment of compensation to families or their rehabilitation, following the 2014 SC judgment. At the time, the state had no records of such deaths and relied on the records of this NGO. The NGO recorded 152 deaths from 1993 to 2014. The 2013 Act stipulated Rs 10 lakh to the families of the deceased as compensation. Till date, of the 152 deceased, 78 have been compensated. Many of those compensated have not received the full Rs 10 lakh.

A government resolution puts the onus of payment of such compensation from own fund of the local body . However, the caveat of private contractors, is often cited by municipality bodies as well as municipal corporations to deny compensation.

Many of the families of 70 deceased workers (of the 152 dead until 2014) still await compensation. Urban bodies keep such applications in pending status, as they verify and validate the deceased s employment. For many others, the urban bodies have denied theme compensation on grounds such as, death occurred during private work , death while laying new sewage pipelines and network executed by authority , the deceased wasn t working as employee of Nagarpalika or its contractor .