Activist Bezwada Wilson said the Union government’s announcement to switch from “manhole to machine mode” and eradicate manual scavenging was mere sloganeering.
While presenting the Union budget on Wednesday, 1 February, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that waste from the sewers and septic tanks across the country would soon be removed solely through a mechanical process.
“For the past three years, the Union government has been saying that it would mechanise the sewage system and end manual scavenging. However, they only come up with a new name every year and everything is only on paper,” Wilson, the national convenor of the Delhi-based Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), told South First.
Manual scavenging is defined as manual cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling in any manner human excreta in an insanitary latrine or an open drain.
The practice is banned under the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
In December last year, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, in a written response in Parliament, said that there were no deaths reported due to manual scavenging, but 400 persons died since 2017 due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
Meanwhile, as recently as Tuesday, a contractual sanitation worker hired by the Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) was reported dead at work allegedly after he fell four feet deep in an open gutter while cleaning it. He was said to belong to a Madiga community, a scheduled caste.
‘Only naara (slogan), no plan’
Rebuking the finance minister after the announcement, Wilson alleged that the Union government had no intention to eradicate manual scavenging.
“Deaths due to manual scavengers are increasing, but the Central government has not even identified these people with a survey so far,” Wilson claimed, while asserting that it was a caste-based practice.
He added that the Central government is self-defeating in its own words.
“On one hand Athwale said in Parliament that there were no manhole or manual scavenging. Today, the government is saying that it wants to move from manholes to machine mode. Why is there a need for machines if nobody died due to manual scavenging in the country for the past five years?” he asked.
Wilson demanded that the Central government come up with an action plan if it wants to eradicate manual scavenging in all towns and cities.
“Why did the government not say how much money, which machines, and what alternatives it would use to end manual scavenging? Clearly, it has not done any groundwork,” he said.
Growth which is not inclusive and budget which does not reflects our lives will be in no way able to change our fortunes leaving us in pits of perils | #Action2023 campaign against sewer and septic tank deaths at Lucknow in UP | #StopKillingUs #JaiBhim #DalitLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/PV29O274cg
— Bezwada Wilson (@BezwadaWilson) January 31, 2023
971 deaths since 1993
In April 2022, the data provided by the Ministry said that as many as 971 people had lost their lives while cleaning sewers or septic tanks since 1993, when the prohibition on the employment of manual scavengers was enacted.
Tamil Nadu accounted for the highest number of reported “sewer deaths” — 214. It was followed by Gujarat (156 deaths) and Uttar Pradesh (106).
As per the data, the highest number of deaths of sewer and septic tank workers — 117 — was reported in 2019.