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?
To find out, 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.
The bustling metropolis of Mumbai, with the richest municipal corporation in India, was among the worst offenders.
As he left for work at 6 am on December 23, 2019, Govind Chorotiya had a request for his wife, Vimla: “Come home early this evening, before seven.” Vimla Chorotiya usually spent evenings at a relative’s place, doing piece work to supplement the family’s income. But Govind was insistent. “I will bring something for the children,” he said.
Govind did not get home that evening. Instead, at 7 pm, Vimla found herself numb with shock, staring at her husband’s body in the morgue of a public hospital in Mumbai’s Govandi suburb. Beside her, two other women stood grieving over the bodies of their husbands, Santosh Kalshekar and Biswajeet Debnath, both daily wage labourers like Govind.
Just four days before, the men had bagged jobs for a whole week – plumbing and tiling work for a private housing society in Govandi for Rs 500 a day. And yet, doctors were now telling Chorotiya that her husband and his colleagues had died of asphyxiation, after inhaling poisonous gases inside the society’s septic tank. Police officials informed the distraught families that their men had “fallen” into the tank, and in the days that followed, members of the housing society claimed they had no idea how or why the three workers ended up inside the tank meant for collecting waste from the toilets of the entire building.
Chorotiya was not fooled by this tale. Her husband was not a sanitation worker, but she was well aware that septic tanks, being unconnected to the city’s sewerage system, needed to be cleaned out whenever they filled up. “No one decides to go clean such things on their own,” she said. “Someone made them do it.”
Making a person enter sewers and septic tanks to clean them manually has been a punishable offence in India since 2013, when the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed. In the police complaint that Chorotiya and the widows of Kalshekar and Debnath filed, the secretary of the housing society has been booked for culpable homicide as well as under sections of the law against manual scavenging.
In November 2021, after a strict order from the Bombay High Court, the Mumbai collectorate paid each of the three widows Rs 10 lakh – the amount of compensation that families of manual scavenging victims are legally entitled to.
Despite this, Mumbai’s municipal corporation has not officially recorded the deaths of Govind Chorotiya, Kalshekar and Debnath as manual scavenger deaths. In fact, as far as the corporation is concerned, the city has seen no manual scavenger deaths at all in the past five years. The tally of such deaths has been zero since 2017, it said in response to a Right to Information request by Scroll.in.
But records maintained by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a national organisation working for the rights of sanitation workers, show 19 people died in Mumbai in the past five years while cleaning septic tanks and sewers.
Why isn’t the civic body acknowledging these deaths?
‘Legal workers have not died’
In June 2022, Scroll.in sent the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation a series of RTI queries about its efforts to prohibit the manual cleaning of human waste, sewers and septic tanks. The RTI application was forwarded from the corporation’s headquarters to its solid waste management department, which in turn passed it on to the sewerage operations department.
In response to a question about the steps taken in the past decade to implement the 2013 Act against manual scavenging, the office of the chief engineer of sewerage operations vaguely stated that the Act “is circulated to concerned section of this department”. On the number of deaths attributable to this practice in Mumbai since 2017, the response was that no workers had died from that department.
In a phone conversation with Scroll.in, an executive engineer from the department reiterated this claim. “There have been no deaths [of manual scavengers] in Mumbai, neither among our employees doing sewer cleaning work, nor among the workers of our contractors,” Vinayak Gavas, the executive engineer, said. The municipal corporation hires contractors, through tenders, to carry out sanitation work alongside its employees.
When asked about the many widely reported deaths of sewer and septic tank cleaners in Mumbai, Gavas was dismissive. “The one or two cases you must have heard of were in private societies,” he said. “They were workers hired on a personal level.”
“One or two cases” is a gross understatement. “Mumbai actually has had the maximum manual scavenging deaths in Maharashtra,” said Vishal Shukla, the state convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. The organisation, which pushed for the 2013 law against manual scavenging, maintains records of manual scavenger deaths by tracking police complaints and media reports across the country.
From 2017 up to November 2022, the Safai Karamchari Andolan has recorded 70 deaths of manual scavengers across rural and urban Maharashtra. Of these, 19 deaths – more than a quarter of the total – are from Mumbai city alone. Six deaths took place in 2017, four in 2018, six in 2019 and three more in March 2022, barely three months before Scroll.in sent its RTI questions to the municipal corporation.
Scroll.in looked through these records to verify them and met the families of six deceased workers, who said the municipal corporation’s denial of these deaths was a blatant negation of their grief and loss.
“If they are saying no one died while doing this work,” said Chorotiya, “then how did I become a widow?”
Right to information
Have Indian cities ended manual scavenging?
A five-part series from western India
Mumbai’s municipal corporation may want to shrug off responsibility for the deaths of workers not on its rolls, but the 2013 law makes a local government responsible for maintaining records of all manual scavengers it comes across, irrespective of who employs them. Local bodies are also responsible for financially rehabilitating them and the families of those who die doing such work – the reason why the court mandated that compensation be paid to the families of Chorotiya, Kalshekar and Debnath.
Even Gavas’ claim that these deaths were limited to workers hired on a “personal level” by private societies was false. In March 2022, three workers – Ganapathi Arundhatiyar, Sayyed Rauf and Annadurai Velmil – died while cleaning the septic tank of a municipal public toilet in a slum.
‘Smell makes you dizzy’
The public toilet in Ekta Nagar slum has been built parallel to a wide, fetid gutter in the northern suburb of Kandivali. Its plumbing should have been connected to the main municipal sewer lines, but instead the toilet was constructed with a three-chambered underground septic tank.
It was here that Rajendran Pillai arrived with three of his friends on the morning of March 10, after travelling all the way from their homes in Cheetah Camp, another slum in east Mumbai. A local contractor, Krishnamurthi, had offered each of them Rs 500 for a day’s work of cleaning out the toilet’s septic tank. Pillai wasn’t aware who was footing the bill – the municipal corporation or the slum residents.
“This contractor only deals with gutter and tank cleaning work, and I had worked for him many times since the lockdown,” said Pillai, a skinny man in his late 40s. Pillai had worked as a helper in a canteen for several years before the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown left him jobless and forced him to take up any daily wage work he could get.
The usual procedure for cleaning a septic tank, said Pillai, is to open up the lid of the tank, stir the sludge inside with a pole and then leave it alone for an hour or two, to let out any poisonous gases from inside. Legally, the tank should then be cleaned out with a suction-based desludging machine available with the city authorities, but Pillai claims that Krishnamurthi always asked workers to climb into tanks and clean them manually instead.
“At times I have climbed down up to here,” he said, pointing to the level of his neck. “Sometimes the smell makes you feel dizzy, so you come out and sit for 15 minutes or half an hour.” Pillai has never been provided with any safety gear like oxygen masks, protective body suits, gloves or boots while doing this work. “The first time I did it, I could not eat after getting home. I had a bath twice, but I still felt like the smell was all around me.”
The municipal corporation has repeatedly claimed that it deploys machines for cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In response to Scroll.in’s Right to Information request, the three zonal offices of the sewerage operations department even furnished lists of the machines bought after the 2013 Act came into force. This includes 12 suction machines, which can unclog drains by sucking excess water and blockages; 22 high-capacity suction-cum-jetting machines with recyclers, which can additionally spray water with extreme force; 24 compact pipe sewer cleaning machines; eight grab machines for desilting manholes; 11 gulley emptiers, 10 mud sucking machines and four pairs of power buckets.
Each zone also has one “quick response vehicle”, which Gavas claimed are designed to provide immediate and temporary relief when drains or gutters overflow in smaller lanes.
This set of 100-odd machines is meant to serve a city with a population of 2 crore, spread over 603 sq km. No wonder sanitation workers say they rarely get to use them.
“On the main roads, the BMC uses machines to clean manholes and sewer lines, but in our slums and in smaller lanes, absolutely no machines are given either by the BMC or the contractors,” said Sendil Kumar, a member of the Kachra Vahtuk Sangharsh Samiti, a union of sanitation workers in Mumbai.
Although he has now switched to driving an auto rickshaw, Kumar spent 15 years as a contract-based sanitation worker in the slum areas of Malad and Kandivali. There, he did everything from sweeping streets to cleaning gutters and toilets. “If a worker refuses to enter a manhole or septic tank to clean it manually, the contractor tells him to go home and doesn’t give him work anymore,” said Kumar, who claims he often chose to let go of work – and pay – because of this. “Then the contractor will find someone else, anyone who is willing to drink [alcohol] and climb down, and get the work done anyway.”
For just Rs 500
On March 10, when Pillai opened the lids of the three chambers of the septic tank at the Ekta Nagar toilet, he decided not to go ahead with the cleaning job. “Masala full bharela tha teeno mein – all three chambers were full of waste – at least 4 or 4.5 feet deep,” he said. The tank itself was around 6 feet deep. “I said this work cannot be done for just Rs 500, each of us should get at least Rs 1,000 to 1,500. It would take at least two days to clean it all.”
The toilet had also not been closed to the public before the workers arrived, which meant that anyone using it would be at risk of inhaling toxic gases once the septic tank had been opened.
While Pillai left Ekta Nagar and returned home, the other three workers chose to stay and clean the tank. By noon, their fates were sealed. According to the police’s account of the incident, the first worker to climb into the tank was 41-year-old Ganapathi Arundhatiyar. When he passed out, the other workers – Sayyed Rauf and Annadurai Velmil – followed suit to save him, losing their own lives in the process.
At Arundhatiyar’s one-room home in Cheetah Camp, his family said they had no idea he had gone to clean waste in a septic tank when he left that morning. “He used to work as an electrician or take up any other work he got. He had no knowledge of this kind of [cleaning] work,” said Dhanasekhar, Arundhatiyar’s brother.
A few lanes away, 50-year-old Sayyed Rauf’s sister Farida said the same – Rauf usually took up daily wage work that contractors offered at the local naka or street corner, and his family did not know what kind of work he had taken up that day. “At sunset the police came with his photo, telling us he had died. Hamari halat kharab ho gayi – we were in a bad state,” said Farida.
After the incident, the police arrested Krishnamurthi and another sub-contractor. No one from the municipal corporation was held responsible. Krishnamurthi was released on bail after three months – the sub-contractor had secured bail earlier.
In a phone conversation with Scroll.in, Krishnamurthi insisted he was innocent, and claimed he was a victim of the same system that had taken the lives of his “friends” Arundhatiyar, Rauf and Velmil. “I am a poor man, just like them,” said the 51-year-old. “For the past 20 years I have done the same work they were doing – climbing down into gutters and septic tanks to clean them.”
In recent years, he had become a labour contractor. He bagged the job to clean the Ekta Nagar toilet tank through his neighbour’s relative, who worked as a cashier at the toilet, he said. “I thought it would be a good way to earn Rs 500 or Rs 1,000. At that time I didn’t even know the state of the toilet’s septic tank.”
When the incident occurred, Krishnamurthi claims he, too, tried to save the three men’s lives. “I tried to tell the police that I was not the main contractor, but they put me in jail,” he said. “I still don’t know who the main contractor running the toilet is, but it must be someone influential.”
Since the public toilet in Ekta Nagar had been built by the municipal corporation, Scroll.in contacted officials in the local solid waste department to find out the extent of their involvement in overseeing and funding the cleaning of the toilet. The officials were not available for comment. But Vinayak Gavas, executive engineer in the sewerage department, said public toilets, once built, are handed over to local non-government organisations to run, and their maintenance is “funded by the money collected from the public who use the toilet”.
Nine months after the tragedy, the criminal case of culpable homicide and engaging workers in manual scavenging has still not been heard in court. The three families have also not yet received the compensation of Rs 10 lakh each from the state government, even though Dhanasekhar had been assured by the police that it would be paid within six months of the incident.
The families desperately want justice, but not necessarily in the form of having Krishnamurthi or anyone else imprisoned. “Saza se kya hoga? Paisa chahiye,” said Rauf’s brother Khwaja Moinuddin. A punishment would not be helpful, he said – we want money. Rauf is survived by two estranged wives and five children studying in school and college. “Each of the children should be given at least Rs 4 lakh, so that their future is secured,” Moinuddin said.
The cycle continues
The three grieving families in Cheetah Camp don’t know how long they will have to wait for their compensation, but Vimla Chorotiya had to wait for two years – and fight a landmark legal battle in between.
Soon after the death of her husband and his colleagues, Chorotiya and the two other widows appealed to the municipal corporation for monetary compensation. The corporation, however, deemed that the responsibility to compensate the families lay with the housing society that privately hired the workers as manual scavengers. The society, Chorotiya said, asked the widows for their bank account numbers a few times over the next year, but did not actually deposit any money in them.
In June 2021, lawyer Isha Singh asked Chorotiya to be the lead petitioner in a public interest litigation she filed on behalf of widows of septic tank cleaners who were still awaiting compensation in Maharashtra. At that time, Singh said, “Maharashtra was one of the few states which had not paid compensation to a single family, as per data of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis”.
In September 2021, the Bombay High Court passed an order in favour of the widows, not only directing the Mumbai Collectorate to compensate the families within a month, but also making it clear that the State is liable to pay compensation even in cases where workers died in private housing societies. “It also passed a slew of directions regarding surveys, rehabilitation measures and criminal prosecutions for all the manual scavenging deaths that had taken place in the state since 1993,” Singh said.
In November 2021, Chorotiya finally received the compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the Collector’s office.
All three of Chorotiya’s children – aged 21, 18 and 17 – had stopped their education after their father’s death. She was keen to use the compensation money to help them get back to studies, but in December 2021, the whole family met with a road accident that left two of her children with severe injuries.
While she is grateful she had the money to pay for their hospital bills, Chorotiya believes her husband will get justice only when the criminal proceedings against the office bearers of the housing society end with a conviction. “Until they get punished, no one will awaken, no one will question why we give this work [of manual scavenging] to the poorest, why they die,” she said.
But punishment alone wasn’t enough, she said: “This practice needs to stop.”
In her own slum in Chembur, she continues to witness manhole chambers and gutters being cleaned manually, without any safety gear to protect the workers who climb in. “This happens khule aam, openly, in the day time, in front of everyone,” she said. Chorotiya is certain she would face extreme hostility from other residents of her slum if she raised objections to this. “My husband always used to look at these workers and feel sorry for them. He could never have imagined that one day, he too would die like this.”
The first part in a series investigating how municipal authorities in western India cover up the illegal practice of manual scavenging. Read the series here.
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.