India prohibited manual scavenging in 1993. But it took another 20 years to expand its legal definition to include the manual cleaning of drains, sewers and septic tanks. Nearly a decade after the 2013 law was passed, how well has it been implemented?
We filed Right to Information requests with 30 municipal corporations in western India, of which 14 replied. Most claimed to have eliminated manual scavenging. But when we visited five cities, we found an altogether different picture on the ground.
Prakash Gharu is relieved he no longer has to scrape off human excreta with brooms and carry it in baskets. Public toilets in Dhule, the city located 320 km from Mumbai, where he has been employed as a sanitation worker for 22 years, are now connected to the sewerage system.
But there is still something Gharu is expected to do as part of his job, which he dreads.
Two or three times a year – often before the monsoon begins – he is summoned to join other sanitation workers to clean municipal gutters. The workers climb down manholes and enter gutter chambers, five or ten feet deep, where they stand in sewage water and use their hands to clear choke-ups in the drains.
“Naale mein utarnaich padta hai – we just have to enter the drains,” said 42-year-old Gharu. “There aren’t enough machines.”
By law, this is clearly a form of manual scavenging. Under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, employing a person for the “hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks” is a punishable offence, and the worker is entitled to various forms of rehabilitation, including cash assistance.
In response to Scroll.in’s Right to Information request, Dhule Municipal Corporation denied the existence of manual scavenging in the city. But, in 2018, the same body gave Prakash Gharu cash assistance meant for manual scavengers. And, as Gharu and several other sanitation workers told Scroll.in, it continues to send them down gutters and septic tanks, without giving them safety gear.
The first survey
When the 2013 law against manual scavenging was passed, it required municipal corporations to conduct a survey of the number of people engaged or employed in such work within two months of the enforcement of the Act. The process of conducting the survey, according to the rules of the Act, involved setting up a local-level survey committee, conducting awareness camps about what legally constitutes manual scavenging, and inviting workers to declare themselves as manual scavengers if they had engaged in such work.
In June 2022, in response to Scroll.in’s queries under the Right to Information Act, the Dhule Municipal Corporation claimed that it had conducted such a survey in 2013, and had found no manual scavengers in the city.
On visiting Dhule, however, the ground reality proved to be completely different. Over a dozen sanitation workers that Scroll.in met – many of them permanent employees of the Corporation – claimed they were unaware of any survey conducted in 2013. Among those who knew of it and had participated in it, Prakash Gharu’s testimony was the most telling.
“In 2013, I had filled a form, stating that I do safai kaam [sanitation work] by entering gutters,” said Gharu, who assumed, like many others, that the survey was part of a general government scheme to offer benefits to sanitation workers. “It was the first time I had seen such a survey asking if we do this work. But I got no benefit.”
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Sonu Gharu, a sanitation worker employed on contract to clean public toilets, had also filled out the survey form that year. “I had written in the form that I clean toilets by hand, and I am not given gloves or anything,” said the 41-year-old worker, who also manually cleans the four foot-deep gutter adjoining the toilet block where he works.
Prakash Gharu and Sonu Gharu, who are not related, weren’t the only ones to fill in the self-declaration forms during the 2013 survey, according to Nagej Kandare, who was a member of the committee in charge of conducting that survey in Dhule.
Kandare is the state president of the Akhil Maharashtra Safai Karamchari Sangathana, a state-wide union of sanitation workers. He was one of five “community representatives” that the Dhule municipal authorities appointed to the survey committee in 2013. All five were social workers from the Dalit and Valmiki caste groups traditionally made to do sanitation work. Their role was to spread awareness about the survey through their community networks, and Kandare claims their efforts led 450 manual scavengers to self-declare.
“But in the survey report submitted by the committee to the state government, the official number [of manual scavengers] was listed as zero,” said Kandare, who claims he and the other community representatives on the survey committee voiced their objections to the discrepancy. “We refused to sign the committee’s final report. We also wrote a letter to the government saying that we had no role in the survey report and that the figure of zero submitted was false. The government took no action.”
The second survey
Five years later, in 2018, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment instructed states to conduct another survey, once again based on self-declaration, to identify manual scavengers in the country. The identified workers were to be paid a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 as a step towards rehabilitation.
Of the 58,098 manual scavengers identified across the country, 6,325 were from Maharashtra. In Dhule district, the social welfare department organised five camps in April and May 2018 to conduct this survey, and identified 230 manual scavengers who went on to receive Rs 40,000 each. Scroll.in was able to access the list of 230 workers, of which 144 were from Dhule city.
One of these 144 workers was Prakash Gharu. “I got the money after around one and a half months,” said Gharu, who supports a family of five, with three school-going children, on a salary of Rs 22,000 a month. “I used it to repair my house,” he added.
While Gharu was not aware of the purpose behind either of the two surveys of 2013 and 2018, the contradiction between them was not lost on Dhule’s union leaders.
“First they claimed that there were zero manual scavengers in the city, and then in 2018 they suddenly had so many people to give Rs 40,000 to,” said Vijay Pawar, the north Maharashtra president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kamgar Aghadi or workers’ association, based in Dhule.
When asked about the contradiction, an official from the Dhule Municipal Corporation denied that the 2018 survey was meant for identifying manual scavengers.
“It was a survey for a scheme under the Mahatma Phule Mahamandal – a survey of those doing aswachh [unclean] work,” said Laxman Patil, an assistant health officer in the Corporation’s drainage department. He was referring to the Mahatma Phule Backward Class Development Corporation, a Maharashtra state-run company promoting the economic and social development of Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
While community representatives who had participated in the conduct of the 2018 survey confirmed that the company had, indeed, assisted Maharashtra’s social welfare department, they said it wasn’t for any state scheme.
“The central government had appointed the social welfare commissioner of each state as the nodal officer for conducting this survey, and in Maharashtra the social welfare department took the help of the Mahatma Phule Mahamandal to do it,” said Vishal Shukla, the Maharashtra convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a national organisation working for the rights of manual scavengers.
When asked if “aswachh” work referred to manual scavenging, Patil, the assistant health officer, backtracked. “No, it was a survey of Scheduled Caste people,” he said.
Robots and rods
While Patil skirted around questions on manual scavenging in the context of the surveys, he indirectly admitted that it was practiced in Dhule up until two years ago – well after the introduction of the 2013 Act.
In 2020, as a means of fulfilling the legal mandate to replace manual cleaning with modern technology, Dhule acquired two “scavenging robo machines”, known as Bandicoot Manhole Cleaning Robots. Created in 2018 by a group of engineers in Kerala, these machines have an externally controlled robotic arm that can descend into manholes and clean gutter chambers.
In its response to Scroll.in’s RTI queries, the Dhule Municipal Corporation said it had purchased its two robots for Rs 76 lakh, through corporate social responsibility funds from the public sector Bharat Petroleum Co Ltd. The response also claimed that all 18 sanitation workers in the drainage department – eight of them permanent employees and the rest, contract workers – have been provided training on how to operate the robot machines.
“Earlier men used to have to go down [into manholes], which would cause them difficulty and make them fall sick,” said Vijay Saner, the assistant municipal commissioner in the health department. “Now the machine goes inside. It is computerised and it checks and does all the cleaning.”
Patil reiterated this claim. “Since we got the robots, nobody needs to descend into the gutters,” he said, while his staff demonstrated the functioning of one of the two machines in the courtyard of the municipal corporation’s headquarters. “The robots are taken out to use once every 15 days. They are used when there is garbage in the drains that cannot be cleaned with rods,” Patil added.
The rods in question refer to sets of long, thin metal rods that can be linked to one another and inserted down the length of an underground sewerage drain to unclog choke-ups and pull out garbage. Patil claimed the rods had been purchased three years ago to replace long bamboo sticks that workers had been using for years. “The bamboos were not so effective – they used to get stuck, because of which workers had to climb down into the chambers quite a bit,” said Patil, adding that the gases inside the drains were bad for workers’ eyes and breathing. “Now we have these rods, so they don’t need to go down. Their work has become easy.”
To demonstrate the use of the metal rods, Patil assembled several of his staff members on a busy street in the city The demonstration, however, was not as effective as the municipal officials might have hoped.
The sanitation workers, for instance, were dressed in seemingly new uniforms. Some wore rubber boots and others wore helmets, but none of them had any protective gloves or masks. And while they did briefly showcase the use of the metal rods, the workers still predominantly used bamboo sticks to draw out garbage clogging the drains.
In separate, independent conversations with Scroll.in the next day, several sanitation workers painted a grim picture of their actual work conditions.
Anil Gharu, 39, who has been a permanent employee of the Dhule civic body since 2007, claimed he had never seen any robots deployed to clean drains, and had never been given any metal rods to use. “The corporation does not have machines. We have to use phawdis [shovels] and bamboos to clean gutter chambers,” he said. The worst part, according to Gharu, is that his employers do not even provide these basic cleaning implements. “We have to buy them ourselves. I spend Rs 500 every six months to get a new bamboo and phawdi made.”
Thirty-year-old Vikas Gharu, who has been employed with the municipal corporation for the past eight years, claimed he has to enter gutter chambers and drains at least three or four times a month. “If there is a choke up, we have to put our hand inside the gutter to fix it,” said Vikas Gharu, who has seen uniforms being provided to workers just once every four or five years. “We are not given anything. We wear our own clothes and shoes. We just tie a handkerchief around our noses to bear the smell [inside].”
Photographic evidence of this grim reality came from an unlikely quarter. During the municipal corporation’s demonstration of the Bandicoot robot, Raju Patil, a supervisor in the drainage department, enthusiastically showed Scroll.in photos on his cell phone of pre-monsoon gutter cleaning in Dhule in June 2022. A few of the photos clearly showed workers – sometimes bare chested, sometimes in a simple shirt with no safety gear – standing half-immersed in a gutter or open manhole. The supervisor scrolled over those photos quickly, but after some persuasion, shared one of them on WhatsApp.
No deaths, but…
While manual scavenging is obviously rife in Dhule, the city has not recorded any deaths of workers engaged in the practice for several years. The municipal corporation made this claim in its response to Scroll.in’s RTI queries, and union leaders like Nagej Kandare and Vijay Pawar attested to it. “I have not heard of any manual scavenging deaths in Dhule in at least 12 years,” said Kandare.
But this does not mean that workers do not risk death every time they enter a sewerage chamber or septic tank to clean it manually. Both Anil and Vikas Gharu spoke of having difficulty breathing whenever they have to enter a gutter chamber. And many other workers knew of relatives or acquaintances – all inevitably from the Valmiki caste – who had died while cleaning a sewer or septic tank in villages or small towns outside of Dhule.
The most dangerous work, according to 54-year-old Sajan Siswal, is entering septic tanks. Unconnected to any sewerage network, septic tanks are large, concrete underground chambers for the collection of domestic sewage. People or establishments who own septic tanks can call municipal authorities to have them cleaned, every one or two years, with suction machines. But if tanks are not cleaned at regular intervals, the human waste in them congeals and hardens, and cannot be sucked out with a suction machine.
“We have to then climb down and clean it out ourselves,” said Siswal, a freelance sanitation worker who enters and cleans at least seven or eight septic tanks every year. Clients pay between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000 per job, typically split between four workers who work in a group.
“When we open the septic tank, we wait for some time for the gas to escape, and then we drop a lit match inside,” Siswal said. Once assured that there are no flammable gases inside, one of the workers climbs down the chamber using a rope, but barefoot and without any mask or safety gear. “We are used to it. We take care of our safety. We make sure that if one person starts having trouble breathing, he comes out and another one goes in.”
When asked, Siswal said he was not aware of the 2013 law or the fact that employing workers for manual scavenging is illegal. “I have heard that bhangi mukti – freedom from manual scavenging – has happened,” said Siswal. “But I don’t think it has.”
All photographs by Ayush Prasad.
This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.