Manual scavenging continues to mar Karnataka as conviction stays zero
Soon after entering the underground drain, two men collapsed due to the lack of oxygen. Even as those standing above on the road sensed something was wrong, they did not go inside realising that poisonous gases in the drain could be hazardous for them. By the time the officials of the fire and emergency services arrived at the spot, the two men were dead, and one was in a critical condition.
The deaths of 30-year-old Lal Ahmed and 25-year-old Rasheed Ahmed in north Karnataka’s Kalburgi on January 26 were the latest in the list of people who died because of manual scavenging. A public interest litigation (PIL) filed before the Karnataka high court stated that at least 43 people have died in 21 incidents related to manual scavenging in the state since 2015.
“Any death related to manual scavenging is called an accident, but the truth is that it is culpable homicide, if not murder. When you send someone inside a pit with poisonous gases, you are aware of the danger to that person’s life,” said Clifton Rozario, a city-based advocate, who has filed the petition against manual scavenging in the high court.
“Even though The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act came into existence in 2013, the inhuman practice not only continues, but it has caused lives,” Rozario said.
The advocate added that the lack of political will, failure in enforcement of law and apathy from the civic society allowed the practice to continue.
An example to show the institutional failure in enforcing the law is the number of cases filed regarding manual scavenging. According to Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karamcharis, the state has witnessed 36 manual scavenging-related incidents since 2008, resulting in 72 deaths. Police cases were filed in all the incidents, but there has not been a single conviction.
In four cases, police filed a B Report, which meant they did not find any evidence to file a charge sheet. Five cases were registered as unnatural death reports, 15 were under trial, two under investigation and in 12 cases, the accused were acquitted.
“Manual scavenging is happening in the city on a daily basis, but it comes to the eyes of the police only if there is a death. There is not one case where manual scavenging has been stopped. If the government gives stricter orders, this could be done. But the government has been dragging its feet for years now,” Rozario said.
According to a worker employed as manual scavenger in the city, there are two types of people employed — those working with government agencies or contractors, who either work for the government or privately, and those who go door-to-door seeking work.
“In most cases, we have no options but to enter the pits. We don’t have the power to demand machines and if we refuse to work, they will find someone else. It is true that all works can’t be done with machines and we have to enter the pits, but we don’t get any masks and boots. We often look at fire department officials entering manholes with oxygen tanks on their backs, with fascination,” a worker employed with a contractor, said on the condition of anonymity.
Earlier, manual scavenging was associated with the cleaning of septic tanks. However, according to experts, there are many aspects to the illegal practice. One being sewage treatment plants (STPs) set up in apartment buildings. “STPs are emerging as the new killing fields of sanitation workers after sewer lines, manholes and septic tanks. In the last two years in Bengaluru, at least eight workers have been killed in four incidents while cleaning STPs,” said Siddharth Joshi, member, Safaikarmachari Kavulu Samithi-Karnataka.
There is no clarity on the number of people engaged in manual scavenging. While activists working for the welfare of safai karmacharis peg the number at 25,000, a pilot survey of six districts, including Bengaluru, in 2018, identified a total of 1,720 workers engaged in manual scavenging.
The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewage Board (BWSSB), too, acknowledges that it has limited equipment to clear sewage lines. the board has around 150 jetting and sucking machines, said an official on the condition of anonymity, admitting the machines were not enough to cover the requirement of the city.
“We are planning to get more machines. Private markets are also showing improvement, where many contractors are offering to clean sewage using machines. There is a certain trend of moving away from people getting into drains and manholes,” the officer claimed.
Rozario, however, said the only way for the problem to end was change in mindset. “First of all, it is a caste issue. Most of those working as manual scavengers come for certain castes and there is no interest in changing the social structure,” he said.
He added that more than the government enforcing the law, if residents of Bengaluru could make a conscious decision not employ anyone to clear their sewage lines or sewage pits and insist on the use of machine, an ecosystem will be built. “When there is demand, there will be supply. In this case, a supply for using more technology to replace the man entering the sewage lines,” he said.