Among the most significant steps undertaken by the Narendra Modi government in its first term was ending the culture of silence around sanitation. Unfortunately, the zeal of the Swachh Bharat Mission does not seem to have percolated to those at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid in urban India. The death of seven people — three hotel staff and four cleaners — in Dabhoi, a town in Vadodara district, Gujarat, while cleaning a septic tank, is a shameful symptom on many counts. First, it highlights how the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 continue to be flouted. The deaths are also a reminder of the fact that official statistics, including in Gujarat, serve only to brush under the carpet the fact that manual scavenging continues.
According to the Gujarat Safai Kamdar Development Corporation, sewers are no longer cleaned manually. Yet, as recently as June 2018, four cleaners died after inhaling noxious fumes in a sewer in Vadodara. This seeming contradiction can be explained, at least partially, by the fact that private contractors, some of which are reportedly employed by municipalities across India, frequently flout the safety provisions of the 2013 Act. State governments appear to be in denial of this reality: An inter-ministerial task force set up in 2017 found in its survey across 12 states that the number of manual scavengers was under-reported by about 400 per cent. The implication is clear — most states either severely under-report, or are simply unaware, of the scale of the problem.
The path, going forward, is clear. First, municipalities and state governments across the country, following the example of Delhi and Hyderabad, must ensure that every sanitation worker is provided with equipment that ensures their safety. This must include basic materials like gloves, masks and helmets, to the sewer-cleaning machines that the Delhi Jal Board is ensuring that former manual scavengers, and the families of those who have died manual scavenging, are provided through low-interest bank loans. Second, operators in the private sector must be given both carrot and stick: Any violation of the Prohibition of Manual Scavengers Act must be dealt with severely and the use of the latest technology incentivised. Finally, the Swachh Bharat’s ambit must, on a mission mode, ensure that the apathy and denial that has surrounded the practice of manual scavenging, both in governments and the society at large, be put to an end.