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Four hours from one of the biggest IT hubs of India, Hyderabad, lies Nizamabad, a district with a population of over 3.11 lakh. But the technological prowess of the state doesn’t extend to sanitation in the district. Despite a ban on the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, the district has bought just two jetting machines — the ‘technology’ that can ensure that human beings don’t have to crawl through sewers and climb into septic tanks to unclog them. In an RTI reply to The News Minute, the Nizamabad Municipal Corporation disclosed that they spent less than Rs 1 crore towards eliminating human intervention while clearing drains and manholes. The administration purchased a ‘combined sewer high pressure jetting cum suction machine’ for Rs 46.84 lakh, and bought a ‘3 in 1 jetting, rodding cum grabbing machine’ for Rs 48.99 lakh.
TNM has also learned through RTI responses and discussions with activists and manual scavenging workers that the district of Nizamabad has not enumerated the number of manual scavenging workers, has not rehabilitated even a single manual scavenging worker, and has done little to prosecute those forcing people into manual scavenging. Since 2013, the district has provided compensation to the family of only one manual scavenging worker who died — and even that compensation was given 12 years after the victim’s death.
Manual scavenging has been prohibited by the Indian government since 1993, but it was only after widespread protests by Dalit groups that the practice was made a punishable offence in 2013. As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, anyone employing a person for manual scavenging work, whether directly or indirectly, can be jailed for upto a year, or made to pay a fine of Rs 50,000, or both. For repeat offences, imprisonment could go upto two years or a fine, which may extend to Rs 1 lakh, or both. Similarly, no person or agency shall employ, directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank, the Act states.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, no cases have been filed under this law between 2013-2014. across the country. In 2015, only two cases were registered in Karnataka. The following year, in 2016, NCRB stopped showing the number of cases registered under the Act separately in its main report. The cases were provided in the additional tables. As per the report, only two cases were registered in Tamil Nadu. And from 2017, NCRB instead of publishing the data under a separate head and column, merged it with cases under the existing ‘Other Special and Local Laws (SLLs)’, effectively making it impossible to know the number of cases registered under the law. TNM took a closer look at how the law is being implemented in Nizamabad, and this is what we found.
Denial, not decency: How ‘manual scavenging’ is recorded
There have been five deaths due to manual scavenging in Nizamabad town since 2010, but only one made it to the official list for compensation compiled by the district administration. The victim, Darshanam Abbaiah, belonging to the Madiga Scheduled Caste, had died during the peak of monsoon in 2010, while clearing a stormwater drain. He was employed by the Nizamabad Municipal Corporation on a contract basis. While Abbaiah’s family was fortunate to be identified for a compensation of Rs 10 lakh, the money itself took 12 years to arrive. “Ever since my husband’s death, our family has been through several difficulties. I did not have a home and my children could not be educated,” Taradevi, Abbaiah’s wife says.
The NGO Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working on elimination of manual scavenging, has documented the deaths of four other manual scavenging workers apart from Abbaiah — Sheik Samad, Sheik Jameel, Sheik Ameer Ali, and Alakunta Shankar. The four men died in 2014 after inhaling toxic fumes while they were cleaning a septic tank in an apartment building. However, in an RTI response to TNM, the Nizamabad Municipal Corporation (NMC) said that only Abbaiah’s death has been officially recorded as death caused due to manual scavenging.
The reason? The other four men died while working for private individuals, and therefore the corporation has refused to count them under the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act. While the apartment owner reportedly gave a compensation of Rs 50,000 to each victim’s family, they are yet to receive the ex-gratia payment of Rs 10 lakh from the government, according to SKA. While a case was filed by the IV town police, Nizamabad, under section 304 A (causing death by negligence) without invoking sections of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, against the apartment’s owner, the case has not seen any progress, according to the victims’ families.
Napping on manual scavenging workers’ data
In its RTI reply, the Nizamabad corporation said that they have not identified any manual scavenging workers in the district since 2013, or provided any rehabilitation. This denial of the existence of manual scavenging workers extends to the entire state. In the surveys carried out by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for the identification of Manual Scavengers during the years 2013 and 2018, they did not identify any manual scavenging workers in Telangana.
The district, like most others across the country, has contractualized most sanitation jobs to save money. The contractualization is also an easy excuse to hide behind when it comes to taking accountability for manual scavenging, say activists. The Hyderabad president of Safai Karmachari Andolan, K Saraswathi, says that many sanitation workers continue to get in contact with filth which is considered manual scavenging, though it is prohibited; but instead of defining them as manual scavengers, they are called ‘contract sanitation workers’. “The contractors make them get into the sewers and remove the filth manually and no worker refuses to do such work. They are not aware of their rights. So they end up obliging the employer,” she explains.
A worker from the Armoor Municipality in Nizamabad district who requested anonymity says, “We get into the sewers and remove the filth if it is blocking the pipes. That is our job. We are not aware that we should not do that work. Nobody told us this. All our colleagues do this work. Only on a few occasions were we told to wear gloves while doing this work.”
The denial of the existence of manual scavenging in the district comes even as Nizamabad has been notorious for the inhuman practice at the highest levels of the state. Though a law had prohibited its practice in 1993, a district court in Nizamabad had a staff latrine in its premises which needed to be cleaned manually as recently as in 2005. When the practice was challenged, the court even went to the extent of issuing directives preventing the demolition of the dry latrine.
The brazen atrocity at the Nizamabad court complex became the focus of the SKA in 2004 when it launched a state-wide campaign against dry latrines in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. Even the Mandal Revenue Officer and the Sub-Inspector refused to intervene. It is with the intervention of the Supreme Court that the activists finally succeeded in getting the dry toilet demolished in March 2005, says SKA’s Hyderabad president K Saraswathi.
The Supreme Court’s intervention did little to change the attitude of those who called the shots at the court complex. Activist and author Gita Ramaswamy recalls that the groups fighting against the latrine got Vinod, a worker from the Valmiki community, to strike the first blow during the demolition of the latrine. This act of defiance wasn’t without consequences, Gita Ramaswamy says. “Vinod’s rebellious activity against the administration led to targeted harassment, eventually forcing him to quit work and join the SKA,” Ramaswamy shares.
Not a single manual scavenging worker rehabilitated
Under the Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), manual scavenging workers are to be provided with a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 towards enabling a change in their livelihood. They must also be given skill training. Besides, manual scavenging and sanitation workers are eligible for concessional loans for self-employment projects upto Rs 15 lakh, with a capital subsidy upto Rs 5 lakh for procurement of instruments/vehicles for mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, and are also eligible for skill development training for self-employment.
According to the RTI reply from the Municipal Corporation of Nizamabad, the district has not rehabilitated any manual scavenging workers. “The Telangana government says that since 2014 they could not identify any manual scavenger because there are no dry latrines in the state, but what about the ones who were engaging in manual scavenging activity before the state’s formation in 2014?” asks Saraswathi.
Though there is a historical record showing the existence of dry latrines even in government institutions, the Telangana government has not taken any step to identify and rehabilitate former manual scavengers. The Scheduled Caste Development Department which aims to empower the Dalit community and deals with issues of “rehabilitation of Jogins, bonded labour and scavengers” among others have refused to divulge any information about manual scavenging in Telangana. The Department’s Commissioner Yogita Rana, deflected the blame by claiming that the Municipal Administration and Urban Development department looks after manual scavenging. “How can we give such information to the press just like that?” Rana asked TNM.
In Telangana as a whole, only eight people have been given the capital subsidy so far. “Even if the state government provides a one-time settlement under the rehabilitation, it would still be a futile exercise. How is giving a mere Rs 40,000 going to uplift a family? They will still end up doing the same cleaning work,” Shyamlal Taank, ex-president of Telangana Valmiki Methar Pragati, an organisation working for the welfare of the Valmiki community, who have been traditionally forced into manual scavenging.
“Instead, the victims should be provided reservations in government-owned commercial complexes, where they can do other work. That would be real upliftment. We do not want this money. This has been our long standing demand, which we have put forth before even the 1995 National Commission of Safai Karamcharis under the chairmanship of Mangi Lal Arya,” he adds.
A job thrust upon some communities
Large number of Dalit Valmiki families live in Nizamabad town. The communities were brought to the princely state of Hyderabad from Haryana and Delhi by the Nizam-Ul-Haq Asaf Jah’s government between 1855-60 to employ them as manual scavengers, writes activist and author Gita Ramaswamy in her book India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their work.
The Dalit communities who are presently engaged in manual scavenging go by different names in different states (Han, Hadi, Balmiki, Dhanuk, Methar, Bhangi, Paki, Mira, Lalbegi, Thotti, Mira, Lalbegi, Chuhra, Balashahi). In Telangana, they are referred to as the Methars, which many in the community say is derogatory. “We go by the name Valmiki; that’s who we are,” Shyamlal asserts. Historically, these communities were agricultural labourers who were eventually made to clean human excreta, when the concept of toilets came to existence.
Before the migrant Valmikis came into the picture, the Madigas and Dheds were doing the cleaning job for the Nizams, these migrants say. The present population of Valmikis in Nizamabad is estimated to be more than 2,500. The community is spread across the state, and mostly is engaged in cleaning work.
Among the 36 victims of manual scavenging in Telangana (since 2002), 18 belong to the Madiga community, categorised as Scheduled Castes and the rest belong to Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes.
Urbanisation has also forced other communities like Chakalis, Vaddaras and Lambadas into manual scavenging. “Most of the people who are cleaning septic tanks are now Lambadas; urbanisation has replaced caste with class,” says Gita Ramaswamy. The observation is seconded by Saraswathi, who has noted that apart from Lambadas, Vaddaras, Chakalis and Mangalis who have migrated from villages in search of employment, have also been pushed into cleaning drainage and septic tanks.
Caste bias in government institutions
Though the practice of manual scavenging was prevalent before British rule, they institutionalised and formalised it in the government administration, Gita Ramaswamy writes in her book. Candidates from Scheduled Caste communities who had specified their caste while applying for government jobs, were inevitably given jobs like sanitation and cleaning, she says. For instance, Bezawada Wilson, the national president of SKA, who had then completed his intermediate education, was given a sanitation job when he had applied for a job with the employment exchange.
And not much has changed in the way the government treats even the victims of manual scavenging. In Hyderabad, three persons – Chandrasekhar, Yadaiah and Madhu (all belonging to the Madiga community) – had died while cleaning a manhole in 2013. They were working for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC). However, the wives of all these victims were given a cleaning job – to work as sweepers. “We are not even permanent staff. We are hired on a contract basis,” says Jyotsnarani, wife of Madhu.
Only one person – Sreelatha, wife of Chandrasekhar – is presently working as an attender in the GHMC office in Hyderabad. “After my husband’s death I was given the sweeper job to sustain myself, but I could not continue with that work. Because of the nature of work where I had to sweep the roads, my one-year-old baby had fallen ill. She had a severe infection. After I expressed my concern to the Commissioner, he had given me a job as a housekeeper, but I could not continue with that job, so finally they appointed me as an attender on a temporary basis,” Sreelatha recalls.
This is the same situation with Jalli Narsaiah and Darshanam Taradevi’s family. Narsaiah, a resident of Armoor in Nizamabad district died on July 19, 2010, while cleaning a manhole. Initially, Narsaiah’s father working in the Municipality died of ill-health, and his wife Jalli Lakshmi was given the same job. Then Narsaiah also started working with the Municipality. Now that his mother cannot continue with the job anymore due to age-related issues, her son-in-law is now provided with the same cleaning work.
A debt-ridden Taradevi regrets that she could not educate her son well after her husband died. Because of this poor education and the financial problems, Taradevi’s son is working as a garbage collector in the Nizamabad Municipal Corporation.
“Lakshmi’s son-in-law is relatively well-read. The government should at least provide him with some other job. Why do they not think of offering any alternate employment? Is it because they have a caste bias and have been conditioned in such a manner?” Saraswathi questions. No government scheme or policy could ‘liberate’ manual scavengers from their caste and their profession. The work only changed its form, activists closely working with the community say.
This research was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. The Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this report.
This article was originally published on The News Minute and is republished here with permission.