Five Years After SC Judgment, States Yet to Submit Proper Data on Sewer Deaths

Even in states that have partially responded to the National Safai Karamchari Commission, the full Supreme Court-mandated compensation of Rs 10 lakh per family has not been provided for a majority of victims.

New Delhi: Five years after the Supreme Court ordered all states to identify manual scavengers who had lost their lives on the job since 1993 and pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to each of their families, most states have given only partial answers to the National Safai Karamchari Commission’s request for data on the issue. In addition, only 20 states have responded to the requests at all.

A report released by the International Labour Organisation and World Health Organisation last week on sanitation workers points out that ”weak legal protection and lack of enforcement” is the reason behind the continuing prevalence of manual scavenging in India. An RTI request filed by The Wire, on how well states are implementing the Supreme Court’s decision, appears to support the report’s claim.

Soon after the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment, the NSKC wrote to all the state governments in India, asking them to furnish details on manual scavenging deaths. The states were asked to fill in names of those who died, dates of the incidents, where they had taken place, the name of the person who had received the compensation, how much was paid and the mode of payment.

Given the low response rate, the Commission sent multiple reminders to the state governments, in some cases even highlighting deaths that had been brought to its notice by news reports. Despite this, most states have responded only partially or not at all, a right to information query filed by The Wire has revealed.

Even for states who have responded at least with details on number of deaths registered, the numbers of deaths reported are unlikely to take into account all sewer deaths since 1993. Activists have often alleged that several such deaths are not properly registered, and hence may not have been classified as manual scavenging deaths.

While the Supreme Court made it clear that each family is to be given Rs 10 lakh, the states’ responses to the NSKC, accessed by The Wire through a right to information request, show that smaller amounts have often been given instead.

In addition, states’ responses suggest that in a large number of cases, no FIR has been filed – or even if they have, the states have not furnished this information to the NSKC. Manhar Zala, chairman of the Commission, said the sooner states provide the information required, the closer we will be to finding a lasting solution to sewer deaths.

While Andhra Pradesh has claimed that there have been eight sewer deaths in the state since 1993 – seven in Chittoor district and one in Kurnool district – and all families have been paid the full compensation, the NSKC has pointed out that at least four more deaths have been registered, in Visakhapatnam district.

These deaths, the Commission has said in a letter to the state government on April 29, 2019, were reported by the Social Welfare Department, and no compensation has been paid to the victims’ families yet.

Maharashtra has reported a total of 19 deaths between 2014 and 2018 (no data has been provided for the pre-2014 period). However, the state government’s response indicates that the Rs 10-lakh compensation has not been given to even a single victim’s family. “…till date, information has not been received from your state,” the NSKC has said to the Maharashtra chief secretary.

West Bengal has paid the full compensation in 13 of the 18 manual scavenger deaths registered. It has told the NSKC that the other five cases “under process”.

Gujarat has provided the longest list of deaths, and also going the farthest back. This does not necessarily mean that the state has the most number of deaths; it may just have kept the most records. Of the 104 manual scavenging deaths recorded, the full compensation by the state authorities has been paid in only two cases. Partial compensation has been paid in another 61 cases. Information on FIRs has not been provided.

Also read: The Stumbling Block of Caste in Solving India’s Sanitation Crisis

Haryana has reported 50 manual scavenging deaths, beginning from 1996. The state’s compensation record, according to its letter to the NKSC, is relatively better – it has paid 43 families the full amount. For others, the disbursement is “under process”.

Tripura, in a letter to the NKSC dates March 17, 2017, has claimed that no manual scavenging deaths took place in the state between 1993 and 2015. In 2016, two people lost their lives. Their response says that Rs 17,64,240 was paid as compensation – and while it does not specify, this looks like the total for both families. That means the full Rs 10 lakh per family was not given. The state has not provided details of who the victims were or who compensation was given to.

Tamil Nadu has said that a total of 179 sewer and septic tank deaths took place between 1995 and 2016, and that 141 families were given the Rs 10 lakh compensation. However, it has not provided details such as the deceased person’s name, date of incident or district where it occurred.

Since it became an independent state only in 2014, Telangana has provided information beginning in 2015. The state government has registered three manual scavenging deaths since then, and two families have been given the Rs 10 lakh compensation.

The Madhya Pradesh government has told the NSKC that it has registered seven manual scavenging deaths, beginning in 2013. The full Rs 10 lakh compensation has been given to all families, the state has said.

On the ambiguity in state statistics on sewer deaths and the lack of complete information, Zala told The Wire, “This is a problem. Many state governments do not respond on time. But we keep writing letters to them. Letters are written to the chief minister, chief secretary and all concerned officials. Nevertheless, things are definitely better than they were before.”

Also read: 50 People Died Cleaning Sewers in the First Six Months of 2019

As the numbers make clear, the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment making it necessary for the government to pay family members of those who lost their lives due to the caste-based profession Rs 10 lakh each is still some distance from becoming a reality. The fact that a majority of states have not even responded to the NSKC’s requests for information also says a lot about how seriously the body is taken. The Commission does not have the power to hold states accountable for non-compliance – it can only send reminders and recommendations.

The Commission has repeatedly asked to be made a permanent statutory body in its annual reports. It has also said that it should have the powers of a civil court, so its recommendations are taken more seriously.

Zala reiterated this demand for more powers while speaking to The Wire. If the powers of the NSKC were like a constitutional or statutory body, then it could have worked better, he said. “We can just write letters and monitor. Our letters are not binding on the states. We cannot issue summons for non-processing or non-acceptance of orders.”

Currently, the NSKC is running on a resolution, till 2022. After that point, the government will have to decide if it wants the Commission to continue.

 #Grit is an initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy.