At the start of this year, 82-year-old Buranuddin lost his elder son, his son-in-law and nephew in an accident of manual scavenging in Kalaburagi district, about 573 kms from Bengaluru. His elder son Lal Ahmed and nephew Rasheed Ahmed died gasping for breath after being asked to remove a clog in a drain at Kailasnagar, under 2 kms from the city corporation office.. The son-in-law Rafique also died while Buranuddin’s youngest son survived after battling for life for days. They all worked for the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board (KUWSDB).
Despite the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (MS Act, 2013), which prohibits the practice of manual scavenging, it is prevalent across the country, with many like Buranuddin suffering daily.
“They (administrative authorities) gave us compensation of ₹10 lakh, but the daughter in law took it and went to her parents home. Raju (youngest son) got just ₹50,000, and his job also has not been made permanent. Not much has happened for us,” Burhanuddin told Hindustan Times on Thursday.
In Karnataka, the advent of social media has brought to light several such instances. In October, activist and advocate Vinay Sreenivasa complained that one contractor of the Bengaluru Smart City project was using manual scavengers to clear out clogs in drains, demonstrating the widespread prevalence of the practice even in cities where administrators and governments thump their chests to portray the prowess of the city in technology, startups and aerospace among other sectors to appropriate its aspirations of being called a “global city”.
But the civic apathy in Bengaluru precedes its prowess in technology as poor quality of roads and public infrastructure, inefficient management of garbage, toxic and foaming lakes, unplanned expansion and lack of accountability have become the norm, said, activists.
On Tuesday, the Union government told the Parliament that there were no deaths due to manual scavenging. “No deaths have been reported due to engaging in Manual Scavenging (which is lifting of human excreta from unsanitary latrines as defined in Section 2 (1) (g) of the MS Act 2013). However, 321 persons have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks during the last five years,” the Centre said in a response to the Lok Sabha.
Activists in Karnataka and other places have criticised the union government for “misleading the parliament”.
Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, said that at least 45 people have died due to manual scavenging in 2021 alone, with Karnataka accounting for at least five deaths.
“We may have succeeded in sending people to space, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding human dignity. Manual scavenging involves people cleaning human excreta. Indian society, which is mainly guided by the caste system, has thrust this practice on people from specific communities, who are from the ‘untouchable’ castes,” according to the Safai Karamchari Andolan.
Wilson said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on Swachh Bharat and built toilets, but the background of who cleans them continues to fuel this practice.
“Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir and several other places continue this practice (manual scavenging). Under Modi and Swachha Bharat, there is a focus on building toilets but nothing to liberate or rehabilitate manual scavengers. The dry latrines have not been replaced,” Wilson said.
He said that the Indian government and state administrations have barely spent money on mechanization for scavenging. “The government’s focus is on building roads and connectivity but not on sewage or septic tanks. It’s embedded in their minds that there is an untouchable caste meant to clean these tanks,” he said.
The Union government acknowledged the prevalence of caste in manual scavengers that has far deeper implications on the social fabric.
In a response to the Rajya Sabha on December 1, Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale said that of the 43,797 persons among the total 58,098 identified in manual scavenging, caste data shows that over 42,500 or a staggering 97.25% are from communities classified as Scheduled Caste. Another 421 are from Scheduled Tribes, a similar number from communities classified as other backward classes.
Calling such deaths as “accidents”, activists said is nothing but denial by “image-conscious” governments.
“All the deaths have happened inside the manhole and not an accident and anyone calling it one has to be put behind bars,” said Wilson.
He also said that parliamentarians and other elected representatives should prevent lying as the deaths, activists say, are “culpable homicide or murder” happening 10ft under the roads.
An app was launched by then union minister for social justice and empowerment, Thaawarchand Gehlot called “Swachhata Abhiyan” to create a database on location of unsanitary latrines and identifying manual scavengers who can be rehabilitated. However, Siddharth KJ, a member of the Safai Karamchari Kaaval Samithi, said that the app where the documents are to be uploaded to identify, extend benefits and rehabilitate manual scavengers are being hit by one hurdle after another.
“They have made the process very complicated and introduced components that are not part of the MS Act 2013. Because of which those who are still working are not being identified,” he said.
SK Quasim, who works with the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) as a suction machine operator, was also a manual scavenger for many of his 30-year service. However, he has still not been able to get the loan amount despite submitting all his documents eight months ago to seek the One Time Cash Assistance (OTCA) announced by the government.
Earlier this year, the Karnataka high court had to intervene and ask local authorities to survey latrines and manual scavengers.
According to an official from Karnataka Safai Karamchari Commission, a statutory body that looks into the welfare of this section of people, the survey began on November 10.
“We are using nation guidelines for the survey. Both urban and rural administrations have begun the survey and is expected to be completed by February,” said the official, requesting not to be named.
He said that there are over 5,000 manual scavengers according to the 2013-14 survey. However, activists said that the number is at least 20 times that.