Manual scavenger
A labourer cleans an underground sewer.REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma

As another anniversary of the Swachh Bharat Mission approaches on October 2, municipalities everywhere are rushing to clean up their act. But across the country, every few days, men die while entering clogged sewer pits, overpowered by the toxic gases. 

Since January 1, 2017, one person has died every five days, on an average, while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country, according to numbers collated by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), the statutory body that was set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers.

According to The Indian Express, the data, which is based mostly on newspaper reports and numbers supplied by a few state governments, is the first such official attempt to account for the deaths of sewer and septic tank cleaners.

Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay awardee and founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, says that at the time of launching the Swachh Bharat Mission three years ago, eliminating manual scavenging in cities and villages was talked about extensively but since then, the entire focus is on counting the number of toilets constructed. ''Municipalities, railways, state government agencies, all are responsible for being the largest employers of manual scavengers, either directly or through contractors. But they are all in denial mode. Dalit lives don't matter,'' he says.

Contradictory data?

According to NCSK, 123 people employed in hazardous forms of manual scavenging lost their lives while at work since January 2017. The last one week alone has seen a total of six deaths in the National Capital Region. But, according to data compiled by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the capital has zero manual scavengers.

While manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, the use of men for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks was recognised as manual scavenging only as recently as 2013 in the amended The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. Statistics are telling. The lack of it even more so. In the case of manual scavengers, not accounting for their lives and deaths makes it easier to deny their very existence.