Lack of data, failure to enforce provisions of Prevention of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act are major reasons. The pandemic has only worsened the situation

In the last 50 years, there have been over a million estimated uncounted deaths of sanitation workers in India. Many deaths occurred during the peak of the pandemic’s second wave, when sanitation workers handled dead bodies in semi-urban and rural areas and on the banks of the Ganga in cities like Buxar, Ballia, Kannauj, Allahabad, Unnao. In the last five years, more than 9,730 people have died from multiple chronic conditions emanating from their employment in the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging and cleaning insanitary latrines. Over 600 have died in the hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, with around 18-20 per cent unreported cases in both these categories.

Rather than expanding the categories of manual scavengers — from dry latrine workers, drain sweepers, septic tank cleaners and railway sanitation workers to sanitary toilet cleaners, open faecal sludge handlers, hospital sanitation workers, sanitation-waste intersection workers, bone scavengers etc. — the government has gone backwards, not realising that sub-castes of the Dalit community are largely engaged in all these unidentified categories of sanitation work, which also involve manual scavenging. Until now, the government has merely reached 5 per cent of the total population of manual scavengers and only 20 per cent of the total area of India in its identification-related surveys

Not only does the number of deaths of sanitation workers (manual scavengers or other categories) need to be estimated, but the lapses in the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act and government interventions also need to be highlighted.

Many manual scavengers have appealed to both municipal authorities and panchayats for their identification in the last eight years. In this regard, what is true of the failure of the urban bodies is true, mutatis mutandis, of the local rural bodies. This is the primary reason why states give responses like they have “no manual scavengers or no more manual scavengers left to rehabilitate”, let alone ensuring the elimination of unsanitary latrines and hazardous cleaning in the sewer and septic tanks. District magistrates have also repeatedly failed to comply with the provisions of this Act and the appointed “inspectors” have failed in exhibiting appropriate lists of their examination of sanitation infrastructures.

When sanitation workers identify themselves as manual scavengers, they are often harassed with death threats by local authorities. It is important to note that if these prohibited activities continue to be carried out in secret by the principal employers hired by the local authorities, then there is no point in seizing records. In such cases, non-compliance is hardly ever penalised and compensation and promises of one-time case assistance are only provided in around 40 per cent of “all recorded cases”. Clauses like “power to remove difficulties and power to exempt” again fracture the very core of this Act.

Even if the government is using a loophole in the Manual Scavenging Act 2013, “that when a person is employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices using protective gears then the person will not be deemed as a manual scavenger”, there remains the question of where these devices, promised under the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge last year, are. Again, like all Covid deaths, it is difficult to tell exactly how many sanitation workers have died in the last 50 years, but with modelling based on recorded cases, surveys of families of the dead, the study of community health impact due to this occupation and symptoms in case of Covid-related deaths, it is possible to come up with a more accurate estimation. It’s not just during the pandemic that deaths have gone unregistered. While deaths remaining unregistered because of Covid-19 and the small scope of the surveys to determine the number of sanitation workers is one problem, non-compliance with the PEMSR Act is another. In 2021, the government has no accurate record of the number of sanitation workers, let alone manual scavengers and their approximate death count.

The poor estimation of 58,098 manual scavengers and then its denial a week later, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale’s inaccurate response about the number of manual scavenging deaths and the recent sewer deaths in Hyderabad — all these not only show the authorities’ lack of intention to solve this problem but also how, under the cloak of the Swachh Bharat Mission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed the sanitation workers of India.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 13, 2021 under the title ‘Unseen and uncounted’. The writer is a trade unionist