By DIBYENDU MONDAL |
Despite the ban on manual scavenging in India, over 300 cases of deaths due to manual scavenging have been reported from across the country in 2017 alone, according to a reply given by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to the Lok Sabha in December last year.
Tamil Nadu has reported the highest number of cases of death of manual scavengers, with over 140 cases reported in the state during the said period, while 59 cases have been reported from Karnataka and 52 from Uttar Pradesh. Delhi also reported the death of 12 manual scavengers in 2017.
Not only this, the Ministry has also reduced the budgetary allocation for rehabilitation of manual scavengers by over 95% since 2014.
In 2014-2015, the budgetary allocation under the “Self Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers” was Rs 448 crore, which was reduced to just Rs 5 crore in 2017-18. The drastic drop in the budgetary allocation was witnessed from financial year 2016-17, when budgetary allocation was reduced to Rs 10 crore and was further reduced by half during the budget last year.
Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working for the eradication of manual scavenging, told The Sunday Guardian, “The deaths of manual scavengers is a burning issue. While the number of manual scavengers leaving their odd jobs to start a new life is increasing every year, the budget for their rehabilitation is decreasing. This shows the seriousness of the government. When funds are limited, how can manual scavengers be rehabilitated?”
The Ministry in its reply said that since a corpus of funds was available with the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, the implementing agency of Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, the budget allocation for 2016-17 and 2017-18 was reduced.
TN accounts for 45% of manual scavenger deaths in India: Report
Of the 323 deaths reported across the country since 1993, 144 were from TN, said the minister. In Karnataka, 59 workers died and in Uttar Pradesh 52 lives were lost while working in sewers and septic tanks.
Tamil Nadu government data shows that in 2016 11 deaths were recorded, of which five were in Chennai while cleaning septic tanks; two people died in Virudhunagar, and one each in Madurai, Thiruvallur, Trichy and Villupuram districts.
Members of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO working for the benefit of the sanitary workers across the country, said this is not the real picture. According to their survey, there were 1,340 deaths in the past 10 years across the country, and in Tamil Nadu 294 deaths were reported in the same period.
D V Samuel, state convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, said, “The names of the workers who died in septic tanks and sewers in the past two years were not on the list of manual scavengers submitted by the state government to the Supreme Court.
According to the government, only 426 workers were engaged in manual scavenging. But as per a survey conducted by us in just 8 cities in Tamil Nadu, there were nearly 3,000 such workers.
Cases of manual scavenging continue to surface, say activists
“In Coimbatore corporation, which claims to have not a single manual scavenger, we identified 700 workers engaged in the act,” Samuel said. According to him, it was not just contractual workers, the government too was employing these workers.
Commissioner of municipal administration G Prakash said, “The definition of manual scavenger is different according to the government and the NGOs. If we classify workers employed in septic tank cleaning lorries as manual scavengers, then the numbers will be higher,” he said. He added that according to them, unscientific handling of human faecal matter without any safe equipment in place and without following proper protocol is manual scavenging. “Misinterpretation of definition will cause a huge difference. If there are discrepancies, people employed as manual scavengers can always come forward and we will verify,” said Prakash.
But activists said cases of manual scavenging continues to surface. On December 22, 2017, three men who were collecting gold dust particles from a gold smithery at R S Puram in Coimbatore died of asphyxiation. In March 2017, three men died in a manhole of asphyxiation in Cuddalore. “If the state claims to be free of manual scavenging, why are people continuing to die every year? Many contractors and officials are also threatening these workers,” said Muruganandham, an activist in Coimbatore.
JagadeeshHire Mani, member of the national commission for safai karamchari, said the reason for 44% of the deaths of manual scavengers in Coimbatore was the lack of awareness among workers on safety equipment. “They get paid around Rs1,000 for one such work and they undertake it. The government has to create awareness to reduce such deaths,” he said.