Although there is a SC ban on the activity, the bane of manual scavenging continues to haunt our society.
And the deaths that occur while the scavengers carry out the cleaning of sewage is pathetic and must be prevented.
On Tuesday (12 November), yet another person died in Tamil Nadu while cleaning a sewage tank at an upmarket shopping mall in the heart of Chennai. This is the tenth person dying this year in Tamil Nadu while cleaning sewage or a septic tank.
Data collected by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis revealed that 50 persons have lost their lives this year in eight states while cleaning sewage tanks. The deaths have occurred in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu.
The commission suspects that such deaths could have been under-reported. Data show that 817 sewer deaths have occurred until now since 1993 when the Supreme Court had banned the practice of manual scavenging and cleaning of sewage.
Of the data available from 20 states, Tamil Nadu has recorded 217 deaths, the highest among the reporting states.
The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis chairman, Manhar Valjibhai Zala, has recommended amendments to The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
One of the suggested amendments is that the principal employers --- mostly state government agencies and urban local bodies --- should be held responsible for the deaths, instead of just the contractors assigned the work.
Zala has blamed the reluctance on the part of state governments and local bodies to invest in mechanical cleaners of sewers and septic tanks as the main reason for the deaths.
According to the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, no first information report (FIR) was filed in 59 per cent of such incidents of deaths.
It quoted families to say that FIRs were not filed as the kin of the dead had struck a compromise. The kin faced pressure, intimidation and even the threat of losing their jobs.
The Abhiyan carried out a study of 51 cases and found that no one was prosecuted in the cases, while only 31 per cent of the affected families got compensation as stipulated by the Supreme Court, which has ruled that such victims should be paid Rs 10 lakh.
The Abhiyan said that the highest number of deaths occurred in the 15-25 age group, while 67 per cent of the total victims were married.
It also said that there was a total violation of the Supreme Court’s direction that protective gear and safety devices should be provided by employers to those entering sewage tanks.
Besides this, a sewage tank is supposed to be kept open for 12 hours before it is cleaned as it will help release the poisonous gas that has built up in the tank. This is seldom done since the owners, especially in commercial establishments, are always in a hurry to get them cleaned.
Sources in Chennai and Bengaluru told Swarajya that the corporation authorities in both cities have problems in implementing the Supreme Court ruling on the safety of sewage cleaners.
They give two reasons for this. One, as they face financial constraints, engaging a person instead of a mechanical cleaner is cheaper. Two, the layout of the sewage system in both cities is such that deploying machines is not a feasible option.
Though it is seen as the state that tops in deaths due to sewage cleaning, Tamil Nadu’s record in compensation is better than the rest. It has paid compensation to 75 per cent of the victims, according to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.