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Manual Scavenging: Why Do The Deaths Of Workers Not Affect Us?

Posted: June 23, 2019

Manual scavenging may have been legally abolished decades ago, but we continue to send manual scavengers to their deaths.

Last week , in Vadodara, Gujarat, seven people who ventured into a septic tank to clean it up, died. Isn’t it shocking, that though we have legally abolished manual scavenging, it continues in our nation and ends fatally in many cases?

Yet, we are not bothered because those who die, those who end up cleaning septic tanks do so because “they are supposed to that”, as per the caste system and we believe that they are not good at anything else. And anyway, how does it matter to us if the poorest of the poor die doing such menial jobs ?

According to the governance principles set out for the country in Article 42 , (which is a Directive Principle of State Policy as enshrined in the Indian Constitution), “The State shall make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.”

Manual scavenging is the most degrading and inhuman form of work that can be done by anybody. Not only has it continued to persist in India, people are forced to eke out a living cleaning public and private latrines and toilets. And more often than not, it ends in loss of lives.

What is even more deplorable is that no safety gear is provided to the people who clean up the septic tanks, latrines and toilets. And if this is the case with the Municipal Corporations of big metros, the less said about the others, the better.

A multi-lingual film Court  has touched on the pitiable conditions of the sanitation workers and yet, we find it hard to learn the lessons. Because we are least affected by deaths of others, especially if it is some sanitation worker(s).

Manual scavenging was banned two decades ago and yet , because of our adherence to the caste system, we continue to employ sanitation workers to manually clean public latrines, toilets, gutters and the like. The wages they earn are the bare minimum. There is no insurance or any other form of protection, there is complete absence of safety gear or any protection against diseases and infections.

The death of sanitation workers has become a regular feature in our nation and yet, it hardly matters to anybody because the manual scavengers are nobody in this nation.

None of the other castes seem to find anything objectionable with manual scavenging. There is no demand, that there should be reservations for the positions of manual scavengers for obvious reasons. And yet, all others join protests to ask that reservation should end for the scheduled castes and tribes as they have taken ‘undue advantages’.

If the disadvantaged had received any benefits whatsoever, they would have already gotten ahead in life. And no manual scavenger would be left to do the dirtiest work. Yet, the fact that manual scavengers are the first persons to come to mind when the dirtiest, unhygienic work needs to be done demonstrates that manual scavenging is the result of casteism and all its ill effects.

If this menial work were done by machine, it would have cost Rs 3,500/- only for the cleaning of the septic tank in Vadodara. Since the labour of sanitation workers is the cheapest of the cheap, no machine was hired. The result, is tragedy or rather seven fatalities.

This entirely preventable tragedy of seven deaths has ignited a debate. Anand Mahindra, the Chairman of the Mahindra Group had tweeted that he was shocked and saddened by the loss of lives, and ready to finance mechanization of scavenging work. Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood thespian tweeted  that he had given some machines for scavenging work to the BMC. Even the union of sanitation workers, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis is in favour of introduction of mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.

Let’s trust that this argument in favour of mechanised scavenging comes to fruition. And all human beings are able to live with dignity in this Bharat desha! Then only will the idea of Swachh Bharat ring true!

Image via NewsD video with a Safai Karamchari

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I am a law graduate from Government Law College,Mumbai.I am a Fellow in

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