Manual scavenging: Families of those who died cleaning septic tanks await justice

It is the responsibility of the BMC to ensure that manual cleanup does not occur. Image: MS Gopal, Mumbai Pause

March 10, 2022 is the date that Priya, 16, and her mother Laxmi, 39, will remember for the rest of their lives. On that day, Priya’s father Annadurai, 50, lost his life while working in Mumbai’s Kandivali district. He was one of three men assigned to manual cleaning, a practice of removing human excrement from sewers or septic tanks by hand. This work should earn each of them 500 rupees.

Annadurai was a plumbing worker for private contractors. He was hired to work in Kandivali along with his three friends – Rauf Syed, Krishnamurti and Ganpati. With no safety equipment or machinery of any kind, they had to clean the septic tank of a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) toilet.

Annadurai first got into the tank to clean it, but couldn’t stand the smell and fell unconscious. Rauf and Ganpati met the same fate trying to save him; The three died of asphyxiation.

Manual flushing is prohibited but will continue

Priya and her mother Laxmi look at the camera.  They sit on two plastic chairs, behind them a blue tarpaulin.Priya and her mother Laxmi. The family of two hails from Tamil Nadu and believes that they only have each other in this world. Image: Eshan Kalyanikar

The practice is rooted in the Hindu caste system, whereupon dominant caste groups force members of Scheduled Castes (SC) to engage in such acts. At the end of last year, a total of 58,098 people were identified as manual scavengers. Caste data were only available for 43,797 of them, of whom 42,594 (97.25%) belonged to SC communities, 421 to Scheduled Tribes, and 431 to Other Backward Classes.

Manual cleaning was banned in 1993 and is a criminal offense under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013. Septic tank cleaning is the responsibility of BMC’s Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD) and sewer desludging and cleaning is the responsibility of BMC’s Sewerage Operations Department (SOD).

“Nonprofit organizations manage BMC toilets. I don’t know if they use private contractors who also hire manual labor, but BMC uses desludging machines for septic tank cleaning. The cases (of manual cleaning) you may have heard about were not commissioned by BMC but by private contractors,” says SWMD Chief Engineer Bharat Torne.

The Commissioner of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Dr. However, Prashant Narnaware emphasizes that it is the responsibility of a local company, in this case the BMC, to ensure that manual cleanup does not take place at all. “Municipal companies need to make sure they give the contract to people who don’t encourage manual cleaning in any way. It’s their responsibility,” he says.

Continue reading: Despite the law prohibiting manual scavenging, the practice is widespread in the city

BMC Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal and Additional Commissioner Sanjeev Kumar, who is responsible for SWM, remained unavailable for comment. Referring to residential septic tank cleaning, SWMD’s former chief engineer (who asked not to be named) says: “BMC uses machines to clean septic tanks (of residential buildings) in suburban areas and partly within cities. Most buildings with septic tanks are in the suburbs, while buildings within the city limits are mostly connected to the sewer system.” He adds that many companies use private contractors to cut costs, and this leads to cases of manual cleaning.

Meanwhile, SOD Executive Engineer Sudhir Kenya says only in “extraordinary” circumstances will a man be asked to enter the sewers. “They are certified divers and are sent with an appropriate full body suit and safety gear,” he says.

“We have enough machines across Mumbai to clean the lines under SOD. We comply with the law on the prohibition of employment as a hand cleaner when cleaning sewers. In the last 10 years there have been no fatalities while cleaning sewers with SOD. The cases that are there have happened in private places or elsewhere,” says Kenya.

Do the families know that manual cleaning was forbidden?

Laxmi is a recovering TB patient and cleans utensils at a restaurant and in local homes. “We didn’t know there was a law against such practices until now,” she says. When asked how life has evolved since the incident, Priya says, “We survive because my mother works. I finished my 10th this year but couldn’t continue my studies because the fees are high.”

If Annadurai had been alive, his daughter could have continued her studies now. “I don’t want her to work, I want her to study. She is my only child, she is my life now. In any case, I will make sure that she can continue to study,” says Laxmi.

The family called themselves “Harijan,” a term sometimes used to describe planned caste communities. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t know that this practice is illegal. It is our job to make this known, we cannot allow our fellow human beings to be involved in any degrading work. That is very wrong,” says Dr. Narnaware.

A lady and a man watch the cleaning of sewers.Despite the ban, manual washing continues. Image: MS Gopal, Mumbai Pause

Of the four friends, only Krishnamurthi returned home alive. The contractor was arrested and soon released on bail. Krishnamurthi was also arrested as an accomplice because he had brought the three of them to the contractor as an intermediary. He was also released on bail soon after his arrest.

“The security gear was supposed to arrive, but the three decided to get in before then,” claims Krishnamurthi. Rauf’s nephew Yusuf vehemently contradicted this statement. All the victims were interviewed together in Mankhurd where they live. This was the first time Yusuf and Annadurai’s family realized that the other man they had heard about whose arrest was none other than Krishnamurthi. “The contractor should have secured the safety equipment first and then sent the workers there,” Yusuf tells Krishnamurthi.

No compensation received for deaths

The families claim that apart from a few people from various NGOs, no official came to speak to them. “We knew he was a cleaner but had no idea the scope of his work. After his death, we were told we would get some kind of compensation, but nothing of the sort happened,” says Syed Abdul Hameed, Rauf’s brother, who does embroidery.

Compensation for death due to manual cleaning is Rs 10 lakh, which the state government is obliged to pay. Official figures say that from 1993 to 2022, 971 people died cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country, with Rs 10 lakh in compensation paid to the families of 703 victims. 136 victims received less than Rs 10 lakh.

A total of 43 people have died in Maharashtra between 1993 and 2022, according to the data, of which families with 16 victims received Rs 10 lakh in compensation while two families received less than Rs 10 lakh.

“We have circulated guidelines and a GR (government order) stating that the relevant authority under whose jurisdiction the death occurs will be held responsible for compensation. For urban areas, these agencies are municipal bodies, for rural areas, they are Zilla communities, and for semi-urban areas, they are collectors,” says Dr. Narnaware.

He added that local authorities see a “grey area” when it comes to compensation, but as far as his department is concerned, the law is clear and responsibility lies with the local authorities. “Municipal corporations retreat when housing corporations in metropolitan and suburban areas call people alone to clean their gutters and death occurs in the process. In such cases, even the housing associations are not willing to pay compensation because the sums involved are large,” he says.

He adds that a proposal was made to the government a few months ago, calling for a special head in the Urban Development Department and the Rural Development Department to host the money. “This money would be used to provide immediate compensation for any death related to manual cleaning, without seeing whether the death occurred in private homes or a government building,” he says.

Last year, the Bombay Supreme Court ordered the Maharashtra government to ensure that manual cleaning is not practiced anywhere in the state and “totally eradicate it from society”. The court also questioned the state about the survey that found manual scavenger deaths in the state since 1999.

dr Narnaware says Maharashtra has commissioned the All India Institute of Local Self Government to conduct the survey and propose guidelines on rehabilitation, spending a budget of Rs 2 crore on it. “The survey is still ongoing and the report has not yet been sent to us. We’re taking a bimonthly update from them and have asked them to speed it up,” he says.

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