New Delhi: In the past few years, a large number of sanitation workers have died of asphyxiation due to exposure to poisonous gases while cleaning sewers. Most recently, five workers died in the DLF Capital Greens housing complex in Delhi’s Moti Nagar. It needs to be considered that none of them were technically employed as sanitation workers.
Questions are being raised about the dangers that sanitation workers face and the measures by which they can be afforded protection. There is also talk of providing compensation to the families of the workers who have lost their lives. Nevertheless, an estimate of the total number of sanitation workers who have died cleaning sewers remains elusive.
Upon being asked for information by The Wire, the National Commission of Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), which falls under the purview of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, said that 666 sanitation workers have died between 1993 and 2018.
On March 27, 2014, the Supreme Court, in its judgement on Safai Karamchari Andolan vs Union of India, ordered the government to identify the people who died cleaning sewers from 1993 onwards and offer Rs 10 lakh as compensation to each of their families.
Four years have passed since the Supreme Court judgement, but not all states have provided the requisite information. And of the states that did, the commission knows nothing beyond the total number of deaths that occurred in those states.
The commission does not possess any identifying information about the workers – it does not know who the workers were, what their names were, where they were from, who their families are and how much compensation, if any, those families received.
Yasmin Sultana, assistant director of the NCSK, says that the identification of workers and the collection of compensation-related information is proceeding slowly.
Sultana said, “We are writing letters to all the states asking them to provide us with information about how many people have received compensation. As of now, the states have only provided us with information about the total number of workers who died of asphyxiation while cleaning sewers.”
According to the data provided by the commission, the highest number of sewer-cleaning related deaths, 192, have occurred in Tamil Nadu. Gujarat is in second place with 122 deaths.
According to the commission, there have been 54 deaths in Haryana, 69 in Karnataka, 61 in Uttar Pradesh, 39 in Delhi, 38 in Rajasthan, 29 in Punjab and 10 in West Bengal.
This data comes only from those 17 states and two union territories that have provided information to the commission.
When asked how these numbers were determined, the commission responded that the information was collected on the basis of media reports and letters written to states.
And when asked whether the commission workers ever do fieldwork in order to verify this data, the administrators at the commission said that their work consists only of sending letters – in which they order investigations and request data – to state governments, municipal corporations and district collectors.
The Wire asked for detailed information about the victims, including their names, addresses, information about FIRs, compensation etc. but the commission repeated that they only know the total number of victims. They said that they are slowly gathering the other information.
Following the apex court’s orders, the NSKC had requested this information from the state governments. Yet, as of now, the commission does not even know how many sanitation workers there are altogether in the country.
The commission said that letters have been sent to state governments inquiring about the number of sanitation workers sorted by category of employment status (regular, contract, permanent, outsourced etc.) and that their responses are awaited.
Manhar Valjibhai Zala, who became chairperson of the commission on March 16, 2017, says that compensation has been granted to most of the families of victims. The Supreme Court’s orders state that the family of each victim should receive compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
Zala said, “States are not working proactively on this matter. The number of sanitation worker deaths could be higher, but we know only what we know. We will ensure that every victim’s family receives Rs 10 lakh.”
Contrary to the commission, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a Delhi-based NGO that works for sanitation workers and manual scavengers, estimates that 1,760 sanitation workers have lost their lives since 2000.
Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Andolan, says that the commission’s numbers are completely incorrect. He said, “This data is not correct. It was collected by them in haste. As of now 1,760 workers have lost their lives, not 666.”
When the chairperson of the commission was asked whether the commission has ever consulted with such an NGO for the sake of identifying victims and providing compensation, his only response was that the commission would do so henceforth.
Data collected by The Wire indicates in fact that no state has bothered to identify the number of sewer-cleaning related deaths that occurred since 1993. On the contrary, in stark violation of Supreme Court orders, most states have only identified the victims from incidents that have occurred since 2013.
Most of their families have not received the promised compensation of Rs 10 lakh. For those families of victims that have received less than Rs 10 lakh, Manhar Zala said that letters are being written to state governments urging them to compensate the families in full.
Technically speaking, the purview of the NSKC does not extend beyond monitoring and providing guidelines. It does not have any power to ensure that its directives are followed. Even at the district level, an officer is responsible for ensuring that victims get compensated.
The NSKC was established as a statutory body on August 12, 1994 for a period of three years. Its existence was prolonged via amendments to this notification time to time. Currently, the commission functions as a non-statutory body.
Sending any person into a sewer is completely prohibited under the Manual Scavenging Act of 2013. In the unlikely event of some person having to enter a sewer, 27 preconditions have to be fulfilled. An engineer has to approve the entry and an ambulance has to remain on standby in the vicinity so that a hospital can be reached immediately in case of an accident.
For the cleaning of sewage tanks, the law requires that a special suit, an oxygen cylinder, a mask and gum shoes be used. In addition, ambulances are required to be notified in advance should an emergency arise. Reports of recent incidents indicate, however, that neither government organisations nor private organisations are following these rules.
Translated from the Hindi original by Karan Dhingra. You can read the Hindi version here.
#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. The Manual Scavenging Project is the first in a series of deep dive editorial projects.