Shemin Joy, DHNS, 

  • MAR 10 2020, 15:06PM IST

They live in the fringes of the society, clean filth and die, but do not get justice even in death: this is the story government statistics tell.

Over 400 people from marginalised communities have lost their lives cleaning sewers without sophisticated equipment or safety gear since 2014 but governments and police across the country have not been able to send a single person to jail under a law that prohibits engaging people for such work.

Records placed before Parliament by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment categorically states that there has been “no reported conviction” under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (MS Act) since its enactment.

Even in states like Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka, a large number of such cases and deaths reported since 2014 are under investigation or pending in courts and none of them has ended in a conviction with activists attributing it to a nexus between the authorities and culprits with the caste playing a major factor.

While 427 people have died while cleaning sewers since 2014, another set of official data shows that at least 920 people have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks between January 1993 and 2020. However, the government insists that there have been no reports of deaths due to manual scavenging but admits deaths while cleaning sewer and septic tanks.

When it comes to cases, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number (49) of cases in which 72 people lost their lives since 2014. Details of progress in 44 cases are not available with the Centre who collects the details from National Commission of Safai Karmacharis, which in turn depends on state governments for data.

Same is the case with Tamil Nadu where 60 people have died in 34 incidents. Only 12 FIRs have been filed in four cases while in instances where no case has been registered, compensation has been paid.

In Gujarat where 46 people have died in 26 incidents, FIRs have been filed in almost all cases but none of the cases that landed in court has ended in conviction with court proceedings in most of them are still on.

Karnataka reported 23 cases in which 44 deaths took place. Of this, the oldest case is of Mysuru in March 2014, in which the charge sheet has been submitted and the case is in trial stage. At least 12 cases are pending trial while in one case of 2015 ended in acquittal.

In the latest case in Bengaluru on January 25 in which two persons died, the records submitted to Parliament showed that the police is waiting for forensic reports as in first week of February.

As per Section 33 of the MS Act, it is the duty of every local authority and other agency to use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and other spaces within their control with a view to eliminating the need for manual handling of excreta in the process of cleaning. The Act also stipulates a jail term of up to one year with a fine of Rs 50,000 who engages manual scavengers that would rise to up to two years and Rs one lakh for a repeat offender.

According to government statistics, 62,904 manual scavengers have been identified between December 6, 2013, and January 31, 2020.

The government also said it has formulated an action plan for mechanisation of cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, which envisages appointment of Responsible Sanitation Authority and setting up of well-equipped Sanitation Response Unit in each district to ensure mechanical conveyance for desludging as well as cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.

DH had in February reported that last year saw the highest number of deaths while engaged in sewer cleaning in the past five years. Last December, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment had asked the Centre to direct the state governments to ask their local bodies to strictly prohibit cleaning of manholes manually.

“Machines should be used instead of manual scavengers for this purpose. The department should also issue instructions to the implementing agencies to take strong punitive action against those who are responsible for employing labourers for cleaning of manholes and blacklist them,” the panel had said

courtesy Deccan herald