One sanitation worker dies every five days while cleaning septic tanks

National Commission for Safai Karamcharis says in one of its reports that a sanitation worker dies on duty every five days. This is the highest death rate in any civilian profession. Prema Negi reports

Dalit social activists and others who take up the issues of the marginalized sections of society often ask a question on social media. The question is that if the sanitation workers were Brahmins, Kshatriyas or Vaishyas, instead of Dalits, would their work conditions be so horrific, whether there would have been so many deaths at work, whether the tools used would have been so obsolete and whether the deaths would have been mere statistics for the governments.

This has become a serious issue now as the National Commission of Safai Karamcharis has said in a report that since 1 January, 2017, a sanitation worker died every five days while cleaning a septic tank or sewer in the country.

It was the first survey of its kind in 68 years of independence. Never before was a survey conducted on the deaths of people while cleaning sewage lines or septic tanks. It was based on the reports published in newspapers and data supplied by the state governments.

  • 123 people have died in such incidents since 1 January 2017
  • Most of the people killed were Dalits
  • People forced to clean sewers and septic tanks without any safety measures
  • State governments continue to violate Supreme Court guidelines

The figures are related only to deaths while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Not less than 123 people have died in this manner since 1 January 2017. Six people have died over the past week alone in Delhi. These deaths occurred while cleaning filth, sewage and sewer lines with hands.

Sanitation workers enter filthy nullahs without safety equipment and risk their lives

This data does not present a complete picture as out of 28 states and seven union territories, only 13 state governments supplied the figures. Needless to say, this is only half the picture. Most of the deaths occurred in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat.  The Union government has announced that a compensation of Rs 10 lakh will be given to the next of kin of the deceased workers. But the report submitted by the Commission shows that the families of only 70 out of 123 victims of such accidents have received the above mentioned compensation.

A petition on the problems of these sanitation workers was filed in Delhi High Court this March by Congress corporator of South Delhi, Abhishek Dutta. Taking cognizance of the petition, the court asked MCD, NDMC and Delhi Water Board to submit lists of people killed in such accidents. What happened afterwards is not known but if this is the situation in the national capital Delhi, one can only imagine the plight of sanitation workers in the remaining parts of the country.

Sanitation work is caste-based in India: Bhasha Singh

Bhasha Singh is a journalist and she has worked among the ‘safai karamcharis’. She says, ‘It’s really horrible that one sanitation worker is dying every five days but the government is doing nothing. Our government has the data on how many districts have become ODF or how many toilets have been constructed in the country, but it does not have data on the sanitation workers killed on duty. After all, those killed are also the citizens of the country’.

Bhasha Singh, who has written a book on manual scavenging, ‘Adrishya Bharat’ (Invisible India), says, “As sanitation work in India is caste-based, it’s obvious that Dalits are killed in such accidents. Those who die don’t even know why they are asked to go inside the septic tanks and sewage lines. No law made for them has been implemented so far. The apex court gave a historic verdict in 2014 after the Safai Karamchari Andolan filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2003. The Supreme Court has said that no person can be sent inside the septic tank even in an emergency.’

She adds, ‘In the light of the Supreme Court order,  a compensation of Rs 10 lakh should have been paid in every such case since 1993, but it is paid only when there is a public uproar. Besides, no deadline for ending manual scavenging has been announced.  The situation has worsened during Narendra Modi regime. Earlier, the government used to allocate about Rs 5,000 crore for rehabilitation of manual scavengers, it was brought down to Rs 5 crore and last year it was less than Rs 1 crore. On the other hand, the government allotted lakhs of crores of rupees for constructing toilets’.

  • In Delhi alone, 877 ‘safai karamcharis’ have died on duty in the last five years
  • Incomplete data does not represent horrible condition across the country, says Bezwada Wilson
  • Supreme Court slammed government in 2014

Abhishek Dutta says, “Neither the agencies involved bother nor it’s in their practice to take care of the health of the sanitation workers. They don’t think they are responsible for this too. Mediclaim or health insurance are useless for these sanitation workers because the government agencies don’t think  that these workers have any health issues. They are full of prejudices born out of caste and the nature of work.”

There was a big public uproar over the death of five sanitation workers in DLF Capital Green Society in Delhi recently. The Delhi government said that though it came under the jurisdiction of the MCD i.e. the Union government but it would pay the compensation.

Data is incomplete. Situation is much worse in the country: Bezwada Wilson

Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson says, ‘The figure of one death in every five days has been calculated on the basis of data given by only a few states. The real situation is much worse. If a survey is conducted across the country, it will be found that at least 2 to 3 scavengers lose their life every day.”

(Translation: Pramode Mallik. Copy-editing Amrish Herdenia)


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