If you visit the Swachh Bharat website or check its’ twitter handle, you will find several colorful materials. You will see superstar Shahrukh Khan endorsing Swachh Bharat. You will encounter the glorious presence of the brand ambassadors of the campaign – from Amitabh Bachchan to Shankar Mahadevan to Sachin Tendulkar. You can even download Swachh Bharat ringtone, that too in multiple languages. And of course, you have the omnipresence of our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. But surprisingly, something is missing, both from the Swachh Bharat campaign and public discourse – the sanitation workers!
Seven sanitation workers were killed in the first week of this year, four workers in Bombay while fixing a sewer line and three in Bangalore while clearing a clogged manhole. That’s how we celebrate Swacch New Year! In the last month, seven sanitation workers died of asphyxiation inside a drain in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. According to a report by Ajaz Ashraf last year which cites Bezwada Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan’s collected data, there were more than 350 deaths in sewer lines and septic tanks since 2010. Last year, this annual average of deaths was shamefully doubled from about 44 every year to more than 90.
- Homepage of Swachh Bharat Urban
- Photo: SBM website
What act says
The pattern which emerges in these horrendous deaths and accidents is unmistakable. While manual scavenging is banned as per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, sanitation workers are still being forced to manually clean sewers and septic tanks. In Section 7 and 9, the Act which came into force on 6th December, 2013 clearly mentions:
No person, local authority or any agency shall, from such date as the State Government may notify, which shall not be later than one year from the date of commencement of this Act, engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. (Section 7)
Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 7 shall for the first contravention be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both, and for any subsequent contravention with imprisonment which may extend to five years or with fine which may extend to five lakh rupees, or with both. (Section 9)
Ironically, the Swachh Bharat campaign which encourages building of toilets with septic tanks, perpetuates manual scavenging and betrays the idea of the 2013 law prohibiting the practice. On the other hand, the Modi Government has also cut down the self-employment scheme funds for rehabilitation of manual scavengers from Rs. 448 crore in the 2014 – 15 budget to a meager Rs. 5 crore in 2017.
Further the absence of any safety equipments and systematic as well as hygienic procedure and most importantly, the vicious nexus between the government and private agencies mercilessly kill the sanitation workers. As most of the safai jobs are now contractual in nature – it makes the sanitation workers more vulnerable to inhuman exploitation. Private companies, most of the times, don’t provide safety equipment and are even known to run away in case of accidents or deaths, because they have the money and because of their political affiliations and connections.
And, the Government machinery actively assists them, often in bizarre ways. A classic example of such assistance is the case of the death of four manual scavengers in Mumbai in the beginning of New Year, where the police ended up arresting the crane operator- not the contractor in charge!
Besides the Government’s and private agencies’ direct role in perpetuating an exploitative system, the Judiciary’s role on the question of sanitation workers is also equally disturbing. For instance, the Madras High Court recently fined a Dalit couple who alleged that the Anna University Dean forced them to practice manual scavenging and also the Dean’s husband sexually harassed the woman worker. The judgment shockingly said, “… a sweeper cannot complain that she cannot be compelled to clean up the toilet, therefore, making a complaint that the scavenger was compelled to clean up the toilet, is wholly unacceptable.”! The logic of the court becomes the scripture of Manusmriti.
In media and public discourse too, there is a glaring silence on the question of sanitation workers. Sanitation is often looked upon as a middle class problem, quite obnoxiously. We often see headlines of garbage piling up in our “beautiful” city as sanitation workers are on strike. And we conveniently forget why they are on strike. Only death probably makes the sanitation workers “newsworthy”! Marginal voices who dare to expose the practice of manual scavenging often face vicious harassment. Recently, filmmaker Divya Bharathi’s searing documentary on manual scavenging ‘Kakkoos’ (Toilet) was released. After the release of the film, filmmaker Bharathi has faced tremendous harassment, abuse and death threats.
But, amidst the apathy displayed from all corners, including Modi and media, the sanitation workers are putting up a fight across the country, from Bangalore to Bathinda in Punjab. The protesting voice of the sanitation workers and trade unions is becoming stronger day by day. They have come to the streets several times demanding medical facilities, and basic safety equipments like gloves, gumboots, face masks etc and adequate compensation for the deceased workers and their bereaved family members. The Governments must also use modern technologies for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Most importantly, the demand of rehabilitation of manual scavengers has emerged powerfully in the struggle of the sanitation workers. Manual scavenging is an inhuman casteist practice and it must be abolished. To eradicate caste, manual scavenging must end.
The Government has ignored sanitation workers and concentrated more on the photo-ops of Swacch Bharat, while our ‘godi’ media has left them obsolete. But their fight for liberation will go on as a song from ‘Kakkoos’ captures the anger that has been brewing up over the years –
Oh men and woman
you move away closing your nose
hundreds of stories of how we die
of suffocation prevails here
getting sick, getting rotten …
We will rise up and raise our
We sweep the death
and life above our heads
we will tear the “MANU” who said this fate,
and clean our ass with it.