Manual scavenging deaths of Dalits, a serious problem in ‘progressive’ TN

It is a national shame, but how is the problem so serious in Tamil Nadu? Unfortunately in the state, social justice pertains just to reservations. Ending caste discrimination and atrocities is a syllabus not in the Dravidian politics curriculum.

ByShalin Maria Lawrence

Published Nov 16, 2022 | 5:25 PM Updated Nov 17, 2022 | 2:32 PM

People from Katchipattu, a Dalit colony outside Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, after the recent deaths of three villagers who had died of asphyxiation while cleaning septic tanks in the Grand Sathyam Resort

“₹15 lakh compensation cheque on the spot to each deceased, a government job for each of the kin,” said Arun Halder, vice chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes, in a media briefing while visiting the spot where three men had died of asphyxiation while cleaning the septic tanks of the Grand Sathyam Resort at Sriperumbudur near Chennai on 21 October.

He also said on 26 October that the owner of the resort would be arrested within 72 hours. What he did not mention is how manual scavenging is on the rise in many parts of the country, or how men from Dalit and marginalised communities are losing their lives every day while cleaning septic tanks and sewers, or how India is going to put an end to these deaths.

Money and government jobs would not compensate for the three lives lost. Nothing can reduce the pain and agony the family of the deceased would go through for the rest of their lives. Fathers, sons — the roles of the deceased cannot be replaced by any other.

P Ranganthan (58) leaves behind a wife and two daughters. N Naveen Kumar (27) was married for three years with no children. R Tirumalai (20) leaves behind the love of his life whom he married just three months ago.

Family of Naveen with his marriage photo

Family of Naveen Kumar with his marriage photo (Palani Kumar Manisha)

They were relatives and all lived in Katchipattu village in Sriperumbudur taluk in Tamil Nadu, just 40 km from Chennai.

The three of them were extremely poor and had to take up daily-wage jobs to run their families. They had little or no experience in cleaning septic tanks. But when asked by the contractor to clean up the blocked septic tank of the resort, they agreed to it due to poverty.

Most of the time, private contractors are known to take advantage of the poor living conditions of Dalits and coerce them into manual scavenging. The existing caste-based labour system enables the contractors to exploit men from marginalised backgrounds into choosing manual scavenging over other jobs.

Even educated men are coerced into taking up manual scavenging. “Oh, your fathers have done it. You can’t do this?”, ”What, are you upper caste to say no?!”, “You are not a government officer, don’t see shame in this. Will you starve your family?” These are some of the things one might hear from the contractors while head-hunting Dalit men for manual scavenging jobs.

Imagine being an “untouchable” in this country and poor. What agency would you have to say no to a contractor? The three men said yes.

Posters announcing the untimely deaths of P Ranganathan, N Naveen Kumar, and R Tirumalai

Posters announcing the untimely deaths of P Ranganathan, N Naveen Kumar, and R Tirumalai (Palani Kumar Manisha)

On 21 October at 11 am, Ranganathan descended into the blocked septic tank first with no protective gear.

The contractor did not inform him of the risks nor did he provide him with the safety gear that he is supposed to according to the rule of the law. Contractors use Dalit men as cheap labour in manual scavenging and safety gears do not find a place in this system of exploitation.

Family and friends of Ranganathan with his body

Family and friends of Ranganathan with his body (Palani Kumar Manisha)

Ranganathan’s death was immediate due to asphyxiation from the poisonous gases as soon as he entered the septic tank. Since he did not answer any of their calls, Naveen and Tirumalai entered the septic tank to find him and also died from the gas.

I feel really heavy writing this. Imagine being a relative of the victims. How hard would it be for you to hear that three men from your families have died in such an unfortunate incident? To be honest, “killed” is the right word to describe these deaths.

Not just the families but even the villagers were shocked and inconsolable at the news of the deaths. Katchipattu is a “Dalit colony” with 3,000 houses located outside Sriperumbudur. Most of them were related to each other.

Friends of Naveen Kumar with his body after his death due to manual scavenging in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu

Friends of Naveen Kumar with his body (Palani Kumar Manisha)

As an oppressed community living in the colony, they were pretty close and bonded to each other. The whole village was in utmost pain while seeing off the three bodies to their final rites. One could see women wailing and men in despair.

Bail, informal compromise

The Kancheepuram police have now informed us that Sathyamurthy — the owner of the resort where the three manual scavengers died — was arrested under IPC Section 304 (ii), Sections 6, 7 and 9 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and under Section 3(1)(j) of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,1989, but was released on bail on 3 November.

Families of the victims and other villagers of Katchipattu in Srirperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, after the manual scavenging deaths

Families of the victims and other villagers of Katchipattu in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, after the manual scavenging deaths (Palani Kumar Manisha)

It is important to note that the SC/ST Act is non-bailable. I wonder under what criteria the trial court offered bail to the owner.

Further to my conversation with the sister of one of the victims, we have learned that a compensation of around ₹20 lakh was given to each family by the resort in the presence of the district collector.

It has also been learned that an informal compromise has been reached between the resort owner and the families of the victims in the presence of the district police.

Manual scavenging deaths in Sriperumbudur

This is not the first time something like this has happened in the village. In 2012, two men, Amudhvan and Kesavan, who were working for the panchayat, were made to clean a public sewer and died inhaling the poisonous gases. It doesn’t stop with this.

When I started looking into manual scavenger deaths in Sriperumbudur, it shocked me to learn the place has a very ugly history when it comes to such tragedies. Sriperumbudur being a reserved constituency and having an alarming number of manual scavenging deaths is not a coincidence. There is a socio-political system behind it.

Rangathan's funeral procession in front of his home after his death due to manual scavenging in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu

Ranganathan’s funeral procession in front of his home (Palani Kumar Manisha)

In fact, the largest number of victims of manual scavenging from a single incident in the state is from Sriperumbudur. Six people, all Dalits, died from asphyxiation during a manual scavenging incident in 2019 at a private apartment complex. Three of them were close family members.

Earlier, in February 2018, three men — Murugesan, Mari, and Ravi — died of asphyxiation while trying to clean the septic tank of a hotel in Ponthur, Sriperumbudur.

In February 2021, three men M Murugan (41), D Bhagyaraj (40), and S Arumugam (45), working at a catering unit in Katrampakkam, Sriperumbudur, died while trying to clear a blocked septic tank in the premises.

That so many manual scavenging deaths occurred in Sriperumbudur came as a shocker to me. But keep in mind that these are just the reported deaths.

No manual scavenging deaths in Tamil Nadu?

In July 2022, in response to a query in Parliament, the Union minister of state for social justice and empowerment said there have not been any manual scavenging deaths in Tamil Nadu or the rest of the country since 2019.

How is this possible? The ministry did not include those who died due to cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In a separate list, the minister did note that there were five deaths due to manual scavenging in 2021 in Tamil Nadu. But only five? We have already seen that there were three deaths in Sriperumbudur alone in that year.

The bigger picture is scary. Tamil Nadu, which carries the image of a “progressive” Dravidian state, is the hotspot for manual scavenger deaths in India. It ranks No 1 in such deaths as reported by the Union government, surpassing Uttar Pradesh.

No compassion for Dalits in TN

Manual scavenging is a national shame and a problem to be solved. But how is it that the problem is the most serious in Tamil Nadu? How does a state that is known for its self-respect movement, calling itself “Periyar’s land” and famous for its welfare schemes, have no compassion for Dalits?

Tamil Nadu, which carries the image of a "progressive” Dravidian state, is the hotspot for manual scavenging deaths in India

Tamil Nadu, which carries the image of a “progressive” Dravidian state, is the hotspot for manual scavenging deaths in India (Palani Kumar Manisha)

When it comes to the caste system, we consider the state a democratic institution that would dismantle it and solve the caste problem. We would expect the state to be the implementer of social justice measures.

Unfortunately in Tamil Nadu, social justice pertains just to reservations. Ending caste discrimination and caste atrocities is a syllabus not included in the Dravidian politics curriculum.

The state in fact sustains the caste system. It maintains it by strongly holding on to caste practices that can be decimated with modern technology and laws.

A powerful act, but …

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, was passed in 2013.
It says: “AND WHEREAS Article 46 of the Constitution, inter alia, provides that the State shall protect the weaker sections, and, particularly, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes from social injustice and all forms of exploitation;

AND WHEREAS the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, arising from the continuing existence of insanitary latrines and a highly iniquitous caste system, still persists in various parts of the country, and the existing laws have not proved adequate in eliminating the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging;

AND WHEREAS it is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity.”

The law is very specific about who is supposed to be protected, from what, and how. It lays down guidelines to rehabilitate the people involved in manual scavenging and also directs the states on safety measures to be followed for people who are still involved in manual scavenging.

The Act has best practices and guidelines to eradicate manual scavenging. It also talks about the accountability of the state and bureaucracy. If even 50 percent of the guidelines in the Act had been followed, we would have seen the number of manual scavenging deaths reduced to a great extent and also more people rehabilitated.

It should be noted that in most of the manual scavenging deaths, the deceased are Dalits and it is mandatory for the police to book the perpetrators under the SC/ST Act. But in almost all cases, the SC/ST Act is not applied at all. This makes it easier for criminals to escape legalities and get out easily.

Also, it is important that the state considers manual scavenging deaths a criminal offence rather than an issue-based event. Even civil society doesn’t look at the deaths as institutional murders and a genocide as the victims are predominantly Dalits.

Unfortunately, in a caste-driven country like India, none of the states follows the act or implements it. Tamil Nadu is no different.

Mostly contractual jobs

In fact, a state like Tamil Nadu mostly outsources its civic jobs to contractors who in turn hire people for manual scavenging works. Civic bodies have people working for them, but are not directly employed by the state.

Almost 70 percent of the sanitation workers who work for the state are contractual labourers. They do not enjoy the benefits extended by the 2013 Act nor the compensation available from the government.

Most of the sanitation workers in Tamil Nadu are contractual labourers

Most of the sanitation workers in Tamil Nadu are contractual labourers (Palani Kumar Manisha)

This is the main reason that the number of manual scavengers is fewer in government data than in reality. If not for NGOs and media, we would not know about the incidents at all.

Activists in Tamil Nadu have been constantly fighting against the evil practice of manual scavenging. But both the Dravidian parties, which have been in power for the last 55 years, have mostly turned a blind eye towards the horror of manual scavenging in the state.

Even in the 21st century, we have people dying in septic tanks and manholes and both the AIADMK and DMK have done almost nothing to stop the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitate the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes involved in it.

Photo-ops with sewer cleaning machines

In fact, five years ago, motorised sewer cleaning equipment was introduced in India. Tamil Nadu is yet to deploy them (a handful of machines were introduced in 2018/19 and later, but they were restricted to very few places).

A week after regaining power in the state in May 2021, the ruling DMK government MLAs and ministers were seen doing photoshoots with the sewer cleaning machines and told the media that the state would eradicate manual scavenging soon as it is one of the most important agendas in their election manifesto.

The chief minister’s son, Udhayanidhi Stalin, an MLA from the Chepauk constituency, too did a photo-op with the machines. Praises poured in for the newly elected government even before this was implemented.

But the reality is different. A friend and photo documentarian Palani Kumar Manisha recently published data that shows at least 18 people have been killed in the last one year while cleaning septic tanks and manholes in the state. Most of them are young men in their 20s. The pictures are hard to look at. They expose the ugly face of the caste system.

Need solution to manual scavenging horror in TN

The DMK, which boasts of itself as an anti-caste party, has not issued a single statement on the rising manual scavenger deaths in the state. The Adi-Dravidar Welfare Minister Kayalvizhi Selvaraj has been silent on this as she mostly is with the other Dalit issues in the state.

In spite of activists and others holding him responsible for the deaths, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has not said anything or done anything about it.

The state vigilance committee headed by the chief minister, Adi-Dravida minister and the bureaucrats has not come out with any findings or solution on the horror of manual scavenging in the state.

Family of Tirumalai

Family of Tirumalai (Palani Kumar Manisha)

Even worse, none of the contractors who are responsible for the deaths of these men is ever arrested or convicted. They mostly go scot-free. The owners of the private properties never get arrested thanks to their power and political network. In civic bodies, the bureaucrats responsible for the deaths too go unpunished.

People like me are tired and weary. We see so much horror, death, and pain around us. Yet there is no empathy from the state. We document the deaths. We are ashamed and scared to look into the eyes of the family members which pierce us like swords. The trauma of the deaths haunts us every day. Will the state do something?

(Shalin Maria Lawrence is an intersectional feminist, author, and a Dalit rights activist. These are the personal views of the author)