Despite manual scavenging being banned in Tamil Nadu, the practice continues unhindered, with four people dying in septic tanks in the past week.
All over the country The body of a dead worker being taken out of the sewer in Delhi

All over the country The body of a dead worker being taken out of the sewer in Delhi

Around noon on 19 January, Subhashini received the heart wrenching news that her husband Saravanan, whom she had married only four months ago, has died of asphyxiation. He had left in the morning to clean the septic tank of a private restaurant near Thoraipakkam in Chennai.

According to eyewitnesses, Velmurugan, after opening the lid, fell into it after being exposed to the poisonous gases. His brother Kumar and nephew Velmurugan made a desperate attempt to save him, only to succumb to suffocation.

When Tehelka reached the Dalit colony at Kannagi Nagar, in the outskirts of Chennai where three of the four dead lived, residents were preparing to wind up after a long day. The narrow lanes, with small hutments measuring approximately 14 feet by 8 feet lining both sides, were noisy.

Upto eight people live in each of these, along with their small kids, and most do manual scavenging for a living.

The colony comprising 250 families was transplanted from the Adayar area of the city in 2000 as part of developmental activities in the plush region of the city.

At Saravanan’s hutment, heartbroken Subhashini’s words are mostly incoherent and often gets drowned in the wails of Kanniammal, mother of the deceased brothers.

Asked why they continue to do this work, Mahalingam, brother of Saravanan, retorts angrily. “What else do you expect us to do? We are untouchables. We are not educated. We do this to feed our hungry kids. If you want this practice to be stopped, you should not call us for this work.”

He says that even after slogging for hours in human waste they are paid a pittance — mostly Rs 200-500 a day. The rest of the money goes to the contractors who employ them.

Before the tears had dried from their faces, there came the news of another death in the colony.

Nineteen-year-old Anthoniraj, a sweeper with the local body in Villupuram, died while cleaning a manhole. His colleague, who tried to save him, is now battling for life at a hospital.

A Narayan, director of Change India, who has been fighting for the welfare of manual scavengers, terms these “murders by the apathy of the government”.

Although Tamil Nadu government took cognisance of the Central Act — Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 — only 18 months after its implementation, it imposed a blanket ban on manual scavenging from 15 March 2015..

According to the Act, “No person, local authority or any agency, shall engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any persons for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.” Yet, the abhorrent practice, termed “one of the worst surviving symbols of inhumanity and untouchability” by the National Human Rights Commission continues unhindered with government agencies themselves engaging workers for scavenging.

“Conservancy workers”, “sweepers” and “corporation workers” are the euphemisms under which manual scavenging thrives in government sector as well as the private sector. The state, however, denies its existence.

One of the biggest offenders remains the Indian Railways. Hundreds of railway workers continue to clean human waste. The availability of cheap labour entices private companies to use people instead of machinery to clean human excreta.

The Act also stipulates that the State should rehabilitate conservancy workers by giving them one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000.

But till date the government has no comprehensive data of the existing manual scavengers. Most of the people who are engaged in this work remain in dark about this law and the rehabilitation plan.

Just a week before the deaths, Bhim Yathra, an awareness campaign about the practice of manual scavenging had left the state on its tour across the country

The yathra carried out by Safai Karmachari Andolan covers 500 districts of 29 states and started from Assam on 11 December and will culminate in Delhi on 14 April, after 125 days, to coincide with the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar.

“To our utter dismay, we found during the course of Bhim Yathra that even district collectors were unaware of the Act,” says Samuel Velanganni, Tamil Nadu convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan who returned to pursue the recent deaths.

The law for prohibition makes it clear that each one who is killed in the process should be compensated with Rs 10 lakh and strict punishment should be meted out to the culprits, but most often, these remain only in the papers. Most of the manual scavenger deaths are registered as accidents.

Luckily, due to the timely intervention of activists and a few upright officers, the recent four deaths have been registered under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (Prohibition Act 2013).

Predictably, the government does not have a comprehensive database for manual scavenger deaths as well. Unofficial records say more than 200 workers died as a result of falling into manholes and septic tanks in the last two decades.

According to data submitted by the state government to Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the number of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu is 458 and in Chennai city, it is 252. Velanganni says that the names of the five dead workers were not in the official records.

This has intensified doubts over the authenticity of the data and has lead to demands of a fresh survey. “We met hundreds of manual scavengers during the course of the yathra, none of whom figure in the official records,” he says.

“Wondering why the state is in denial mode. Is it because they don’t want to waste resources on this community who are Dalits?” asks Deepthi Sukumar, national core member of Safai Karamchari Andolan.

The manual scavengers continue to live with the shame they have internalised for ages even as the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar approaches, who advocated their dignity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his book Karmayog, wrote that manual scavenging is “an experience in spirituality bestowed upon Dalits by gods and they must continue doing their work happily for centuries.” He probably didn’t ask the workers themselves, who just want the society to stop sending them to their deaths.