Fifty workers have died cleaning sewers in the first six months of 2019, according to data available with the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK).
This data, although startling, is, by NCSK’S own admission, a gross underestimate since it includes figures for only eight states — Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — out of 36 states and Union Territories.
Moreover, many of these eight states have under-reported numbers, according to NCSK. For instance, as per NCSK’s official records accessed by The Indian Express, Delhi reported deaths of three sewer workers between January 1 and June 30 this year. But twice as many workers have reportedly died during this period. Deaths of three workers employed to carry out repairs at Delhi Jal Board sewage treatment plant in June have not been confirmed by the state and thus have not been officially recorded by NCSK, which is the only agency in the country that maintains records of manual scavenging deaths.
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Even going by such a conservative method of documenting the deaths, the Commission, which only two years ago started collating manual scavenging casualties, has a tally of 817 sewer workers’ deaths since 1993, the year the practice was outlawed in India through a legislation. This data is only for 20 states, until June 30 this year, with no reporting from the rest.
In its annual report tabled before Parliament last week, the Commission has made a significant observation about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the NDA government’s flagship cleanliness mission: the NCSK “feels that this Abhiyan should not focus just on toilet building but also on eradication of manual scavenging or workers’ rehabilitation”.
With 210 deaths till date, Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest numbers of such casualties.
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Gujarat, home state of NCSK chairperson Manhar Valjibhai Zala, has documented 156 deaths, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, reporting 77 and 70 deaths, respectively. Eleven deaths in Haryana occurred over the last six months alone.
When it comes to payment of mandatory compensation of Rs 10 lakh to families of the deceased, Tamil Nadu has a better record of making payments in 75 per cent of cases; Gujarat has done it in just over 30 per cent of cases.
NCSK chairperson Zala has now proposed that the Union government should amend The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, so that the principal employers, which are mostly state government agencies and urban local bodies, are held responsible for the deaths, and not just the contractors assigned the work. “I will write to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and ask for an amendment,” Zala told The Indian Express. “Also, the law allows workers to go in (sewers) if they wear protective covering. Why should a Dalit worker have to enter the sewer in the first place? Deaths will not stop unless states and municipalities invest in mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.”
The Commission’s annual report specifically pulls up Indian Railways, stating that the Railways are the “largest employer of safai karamcharis”, and the “problem of manual scavenging is nowhere as acute as it is in the Railways”.