(I had written this piece a year ago. Recently, the Delhi government held a function, where newspapers reported how the city was going to be the first in India to ban manual scavenging.)
Desperation can make a person do dangerous things. For thirty-year-old Bhagwan Singh, the desperation to earn quick bucks by agreeing to clean a sewer cost him his life. On the eve of Diwali, Singh along with his twenty-year-old companion Tilak agreed to clean a choked sewer for mere Rs 200, which was intended to buy some firecrackers for his two little children. However, both died inside the sewer in the industrial area of Bawana, Delhi. Since, they were not employees of the municipal corporation, their families did not receive any compensation.
Again in February, this year, five sewer cleaners died one after the other after each one went inside the sewer to rescue the other in East Delhi. In total, nine sewer workers, all hired privately, died while cleaning the sewers across Delhi, since October 2010. And, these are only cases that were reported in the newspapers, which came into the attention of the Delhi Commission For Safai Karmachari. The commission works for the welfare of sweepers, cleaners and stop manual scavenging. Interestingly, the Commission did not have any registry on deaths of sewage cleaners before, states the new Commission chairperson Harnam Singh.
Having taken over the reign of the commission only three months ago, Singh says that three suo moto notices were dispatched against people, who hired manual sewer cleaners. But owing to its limited powers in prosecuting the perpetrators, the commission has now proposed a complete ban on manual sewer cleaning and mechanising the entire process. It also issued a public notice asking suggestions from government, semi government, private organisations, NGOs and general public.
“This kind of work is so inhuman despite having a progressed civil society. Everyone knows that the methane gas can kill a person, these workers are asked to risk their lives and clean sewages. Yet, nothing is done about it,” said Commission chairman Harnam Singh. Incidentally, Delhi will be the first state in the country to legally implement a ban on manual sewer cleaning.
In the proposal, which is currently with the Lieutenant General of Delhi, the commission has also asked for separate legal acts that would allow the violators to be booked under section 302 of the IPC, which states culpable homicide or punishment for murder. Currently, the accused are being booked under IPC section 304A, which amounts to death by negligence and not amounting to culpable murder. “The police treat such deaths as accident cases, where the punishment is also lenient. Once, we get the legal backing, we can insist on stronger action against people, who hire manual sewer cleaners,” said Commission secretary Sanjay Gihar. Besides this, the Commission is also trying to bring sewer cleaners under skilled labour category, Singh added.
According to All India Congress for Safai Karmacharis, around 20,000 sewage workers clean sewers in the entire city, of which just about 9,000 are regular employees of the municipal agencies. The rest are on hired on contract basis. However, there is no accounting for privately hired sewage cleaners and their deaths.
Unfortunately, many civic agencies don’t tell about the deaths, since it’s not mandatory to report to the commission, Singh lamented. And, this lead to the other problem faced by commission, that of having limited powers to enforce the laws. “We can issue notices, summons, hearings and ask for investigation and interrogation by CBI. However, we cannot initiate any punitive action against the accused. The commission should be given more powers,” Singh believed.
Recalling the action initiated in Bhagwan Singh’s case, Singh said the Commission had initiated suo moto notice to Bawana DSIDC. It took some time for the police to trace the sewage cleaners’ family. After that the two accused, who hired the sewage cleaners, came for one hearing and haven’t turned up for the last two. Now, we cannot prosecute them and so, they are dodging us. We have now asked the police to book the two accused under section 3 of Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Sanjay Gihar, secretary, said ideally departments should take list of employees working under the contractor, who assures them that health insurance has been taken for the workers. If the contractor hasn’t done it, they should be black listed.
The sewer cleaners, however, are apprehensive about the ban. Their chief concern is what will happen to them, if a machine takes over. Harendra Nath, Delhi president, All India Congress of Safai Karmachari, felt that while the municipal authorities brought good machines to clear the sewage, the sewage cleaners should be giving training as well as safety gears and equipments. “On record they buy machines but in fact, they are of low quality anf after a fews days, it lies unused, gathering dust,” Nath said. In the last 10 years, about 50,000 sewage cleaners have died all over the country. But no arrests or prosecution has been made in any one these cases, said a congress member Balkrishna Mahar.
While the seven agencies, which look after the civic upkeep of the capital have agreed to invest in machines that clean sludge from sewers, only time will tell how faithful officials and people will be to the ban.