Manual Scavenging is India’s Greatest Shame. In 2020, People Continue to Die in Septic Tanks

Social Commentary

Manual Scavenging is India’s Greatest Shame. In 2020, People Continue to Die in Septic Tanks

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

This Sunday, the lives of two sanitation workers, or manual scavengers, were lost after they were hired to clean a waste tank at a gold factory in Delhi. Both victims, aged 45, died after entering a tank full of industrial waste at the factory without protective gear like a mask, safety belt, and boots. Three of the workers who entered the tank lost consciousness after inhaling noxious fumes, and two, named Mohammed and Idris, were pronounced dead upon reaching the hospital.

Police have filed a case against the factory owner as well as the private contractor for the cleaning service under sections of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, and IPC sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 337 (causing hurt by endangering life).

On October 10, two more people died cleaning a septic tank in Delhi. The toxic fumes made them unconcious

Manual scavenging is an outdated practice, which involves workers physically removing human waste from gutters and septic tanks, a dehumanising and fraught activity that leads to high death rates. In 2013, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act outlawed the practice, but it persists in the country to this date. This is despite mechanised methods of waste removal being implemented by the government is several states. The death of the two workers on Sunday was another reminder of the urgent need to end manual scavenging.

At the root of the continued existence of manual scavenging is the persisting existence of yawning class and caste divides, even in modern India. Ironically, a day before the news of the two workers dying in Delhi broke, a tweet by a media professional went viral, where she romanticised manual scavenging as a choice.

The tweet was soon called out for perpetuating the class and caste divide that has allowed manual scavenging in the first place.

Over the years, the number of deaths of people cleaning sewers and septic tanks has gone up. Last year, 110 workers died, the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in the past five years.

In 2020, the fact that manual scavenging continues unabated is a dark blot on a country looking to craft a bright future.

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