Swachh Bharat Mission has not reached Mumbai’s sewage workers
With the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) completing five years, there has been a spurt in announcements and awards. The government has claimed to have achieved several landmarks – some of them debatable. There have been pledges to make working conditions safer for people who clean sewers and, prizes have been handed out to the cleanest railway stations. But the programme has largely failed Mumbai’s municipal cleaning staff.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits manual cleaning of toilet waste, sewers, and septic tanks, without protective gear and mechanised equipment. The law protects both, municipal employees and casual workers hired by firms contracted by government agencies. Workers who do this dangerous work have to be given gas masks, safety harness belts, and helmets. Municipal agencies have to provide equipment like pumps at dangerous sites like clogged sewers.
In reality, safety measures are non-existent, or at best, crude. Workers descend sewers, which contain toxic gases caused by the decomposition of sewage, with a box of safety matches. If the matchstick lights up, the workers assume that there is enough oxygen in the sewer for them to survive. However, conditions in sewers can turn lethal in a matter of seconds, when methane and other toxic gases trapped under layers of sewage are released by the movement of workers.
The country banned manual cleaning of latrines and sewage – called scavenging – in 1993, with the enactment of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. In 2013, employing workers for the job became a criminal offence. Though there are laws that prohibit manual cleaning of dangerous drains, death continues to stalk workers.
The National Commission for Safai Karamacharis estimates that in India, one person dies every five days while cleaning sewers or septic tanks. But many deaths are reported as accidents and do not make it to the list of fatalities caused by negligent municipal agencies and cleaning contractors.
There are occasional reports of municipal corporations acquiring sewage cleaning machines. Earlier this year, the Delhi administration was reported to have purchased 200 machines that could clean deep manholes which are among the most lethal places.
In 2013, it was reported that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) purchased suction-operated machines to clean silt from clogged drains without having to send workers into a dangerous environment. In 2018, the BMC announced that it was burying ‘robotic’ machines to clean sewage drains. In 2019, we still read reports of workers dying from inhalation of poisonous gases why cleaning toxic sewers.
Drains continue to be cleaned manually in Mumbai. In the summer, during the desilting of drains, workers continued to enter the sewage system without any protection. In one area in Mumbai, workers say they have yet to see the machines.
“Everything – toilet cleaning, sweeping of roads – is being done manually. We have heard about orders requiring cleaning machines, but have not seen them,” says a municipal worker from an eastern suburb.
In Mumbai, it is estimated that around 1,00,000 people are employed as sweepers and toilet cleaners. Working in dangerous and unhygienic conditions cuts their lives short. A study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) found that a majority of those who did this work did not survive to the age of 65. But workers say they are in no position to challenge government agencies. “Workers are helpless; they need the salaries to feed their families,” the worker added.
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