Pushpa Devi dabbed her eyes with the corner of her faded pink dupatta. It has been 13 years since her husband died cleaning a clogged sewer in Sonipat in 2005. She has been a silent witness of the flawed system. The government first denied the existence of manual scavengers, then partially accepted their numbers, brought in laws to prevent manual sewer cleaning and built a compensation structure for victims and their families in case of injuries or deaths. She has also seen the deaths mounting, despite all these measures.
Pushpa says she received no benefits from the government after her husband’s death. An emaciated Pushpa now works as a daily wage labourer in Sonipat, and on most days is unsure of her next meal. She is one of the scores of women who came to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last week to protest against deaths of manual scavengers inside sewers.
“No one cares for the dead or those that live on after them, especially if they are powerless. My husband died of toxic gases inside a sewer which he went to clean wearing nothing but a langot. I don’t even know what he died of. But he never came out of the sewer,” Pushpa said.
(Families of victims of sewer deaths demand justice)
Reduced to Numbers
This month, at least ten men have lost their lives inside Delhi sewers. Five men died of toxic gases inside a sewage pipe in Moti Nagar. Another died cleaning a Delhi Jal Board sewer pit in Dabri.
The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), the statutory body that was set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers, show that 123 people employed as manual scavengers lost their lives. However, according to data collated by Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working for the eradication of manual scavenging has recorded 83 sewer deaths across India in 2018 alone.
The data also states that from 2016 to 2018, there were 429 deaths due to manual scavenging, whereas 96 were reported due to sewer cleaning in 2017 and 13 in 2018. The organisation has recorded almost 1790 reported deaths of manual scavengers over the past decade.
Despite the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavenging continues at large in India.
SKA has recorded the existence of at least 27 lakh dry toilets in India that need manual cleaning. The 2011 Census records the presence of 740,078 households where waste and excreta is cleared out by manual scavengers.
However, after 2013, the government recognised 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states, with 82% of them in Uttar Pradesh. This number does not include the septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which are also mostly cleaned by manually.
Manual scavengers are hired both by private contractors and ‘companies’ that do sewer cleaning work as well as by private individuals to clean blocked gutters, drains and sewers in residential colonies on a pay-by-the-day basis.
SKA has documented records of 31,000 manual scavengers. However, they have documented 1, 70,000 reported instances of manual scavenging.
(A sewer cleaner in Delhi's Rohini)
After the recent deaths, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has released fresh data on manual scavengers based on a survey of 18 states. It now states there are 20,500 manual scavengers. The remaining states have not responded to the survey yet.
But who are the people who become manual scavengers? Where do they come from and why do they do it?
According to Bezwada Wilson, head of SKA, most of these people are migrants who are brought by contractors from rural, poverty-stricken areas and duped into manual scavenging.
“Often private contractors go to flood or drought-stricken areas and lure young men with the promise of city jobs. Once here, they are pushed into manual scavenging. It’s difficult to find steady jobs and these men have to send money home. That’s usually how most of them get inside sewers,” Wilson said, adding that these were the people whose deaths usually went unrecorded.
According to the Ramon Magsaysay awardee, most of them do not tell their families and villages back home about the work that they are doing. The lack of records of these migrant sewer workers also makes it easier for the contractors to evade the law.
“They often put three or four boys from different villages inside a sewer. Usually, they have a nexus with local cops and in case of deaths, the bodies are immediately packed off and sent back to the villages. There is no record of that person ever coming and working in the city,” Wilson said.
Nearly all the sewer workers that News18 spoke to were migrants or children of migrants. They also confirmed that the job was often hereditary. They got into it because their relatives were manual scavengers. Some were forced into the job by contractors. And once a man started cleaning sewers, it was hard for him to land other jobs. Since manual scavenging is rooted in casteism, manual scavengers often suffer the worst form of discrimination, Wilson added.
“There is an aspect of disgust that society feels for us. They want us to shovel and clean their shit. But they cannot even give us the respect of throwing us a clean soap after we clean their toilet,” said Amit, a manual scavenger living in Delhi.
He said that it was hard for manual scavengers to find other jobs as no one would employ them due to social boycott and caste-based discrimination.
“If I were to open a shop right now, no one will buy from me. If I were to open a tea stall, no one would drink that. They will not hire me as a salesman, or a driver,” Amit said. He said that apart from the fact that he cleans sewers, his caste (Amit is a member of the scheduled caste) also sometimes prevented him from getting work at the places of upper caste employers.
Bittu, another sewer cleaner who had tried to quit and become a rickshaw puller said that the pay was so low that it was not enough to feed his wife and child. He had to come back to sewer cleaning so that he could continue giving his child an education.
Almost all of the men News18 spoke to had none or minimal education and were without specific skills.
Lowest Among the 'Low'
In a telephonic conversation with News18, former bureaucrat PS Krishnan said that even within the so-called 'low caste', the job of manual scavenging was preserved for the lowest of the Scheduled Caste.
"Most manual scavengers belong to certain sub-castes of the scheduled caste. For example, in North India, the Vakmiki subcaste is involved in manual scavenging. Others such as Lalbegi, Maithar, Hela, exist in other parts of the country," Kishnan said.
He added that castes that have historically been relegated to manual scavenging also include Muslims and Christians, as well as converts. Among Muslims, manual scavenging is done by castes such as the Halalkhor and Muslim Maithars and Muslim Lalbegis.
(Manual scavengers protesting in Delhi's Jantar Mantar)
In Southern India, the Relli caste forms most of the scavenging community. The Madiga and Majhavi castes were also traditionally tasked with manual scavenging. According to Krishnan, these communities have traditionally been stripped of dignified jobs and lives and not acknowledging the caste problem was one of the reasons why manual scavenging continued in the 21st century.
"These communities have traditionally migrated to cities and urban centres to break free of the shackles of caste that held them back in their homes, only to be sent inside sewers," Krishnan said.
The recent spate of deaths has given rise to intensive protests in the capital. Organisations such as the Wilson’s SKA are asking for a complete ban on the practice of manual scavenging or at least, the implementation of several clauses for the improvement of the lives of manual scavengers.
They have given the government one month to respond to their demands. But Krishnan said that rehabilitation of these marginalised communities with skills-training and employment was the only way to stop them from being pushed into this undignified and inhuman work.
(In September, at least ten people died manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India, spurring a flurry of protests against the foul practice. This is the second part of #WhoCleansYourShit - a series of in-depth reports by News18 on the practice of manual scavenging, the reasons why the practice still exists India despite being illegal.)