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.
At 10 pm on June 12, 2018, when Dalsukh Chhavaria’s boss called him to work a night shift, his first response was to say no. Night shifts in his field – sewer cleaning for a daily wage of Rs 250 – usually began at 9 pm, and that night he was already home, ready to get some sleep.
Then his boss raised the stakes, offering Rs 500 for the night. That wasn’t money he could afford to refuse.
As he headed to Ahmedabad’s Jamalpur area to help with the desilting of an underground municipal sewer, his wife, Kailashben, knew he could be asked to climb down into the sewer and clean it manually. It didn’t faze her.
“This is an aam baat – an ordinary thing,” she said. “Sometimes the cleaning is done with machines, sometimes by going down in the gutter.”
But that night proved fatal for Chhavaria. The contractor who hired him made him enter the gutter without a mask, safety suit or rope – another ordinary occurrence, according to his wife – and the toxic gases in the sewer killed him before he could be taken to a hospital.
While Kailashben grappled with the shock of sudden widowhood, her brother-in-law filed a police complaint against Darpan Valmiki Agency, the company contracted by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to clean sewers in the Jamalpur ward. The complaint blamed the contractor for failing to provide Chhavaria with safety gear; the family was unaware that the very act of sending a worker into a sewer has been a criminal offence since 2013, under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
In its first information report, the police, too, ignored the 2013 law against manual scavenging. The contractor was booked only under the Indian Penal Code, for abetment of a crime and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. He was jailed for “a little while”, Kailashben said, before he was released on bail.
What followed was another “aam baat” in cases of manual scavenging deaths across the country: Chhavaria’s family withdrew the case against the contractor. “To fight in court, you need money. Kaun itna dhakka khayega? Who will run around so much?” said Kailashben. “So we did a compromise.”
The compromise was essentially a financial settlement offered to the family by the contractor, in exchange for withdrawing the criminal case. Kailashben did not reveal the amount that the contractor paid her, but emphasised that she also received Rs 10 lakh as official compensation from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, and another Rs 3 lakh from a sanitation workers’ union in Gujarat. She used the money to move out of her crowded joint family and buy a small house for herself and her three children.
Such compromises, according to union workers and lawyers, are typically how most prosecutions in cases of manual scavenging deaths end. Families of victims – almost always Dalits – often lack the means to pursue a legal fight, while monetary settlements offer tangible and much-needed help. Convictions, therefore, are rare.
“From 1993 to today, there have been more than 300 deaths of manual scavengers in Gujarat,” said Parsottam Vaghela, the founder of Manav Garima, an organisation working for the rights of sanitation workers in the state. “In all the cases, the accused have gone scot-free.”
Manav Garima maintains records of manual scavenger deaths in Gujarat based on cases reported in the media, to the police and to various labour unions across the state. Since the 2013 law was passed, the organisation has recorded 85 such deaths in Gujarat – in both rural and urban areas – of which 9 were in Ahmedabad city. Seven of them took place in 2019, and one each in 2018 and 2016. Three more deaths took place in the suburb of Bopal in 2021, just before the area was brought under the governance of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
Not all of these deaths, however, are officially recognised by Ahmedabad’s civic authorities.
In August 2022, in response to a set of Right to Information queries from Scroll.in, the engineering department of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation claimed that there have been just four manual scavenging deaths in the city since 2017. It claimed that all these deaths took place in 2019, and that all four families were paid Rs 10 lakh each as the legally required compensation.
This means that Dalsukh Chhavaria’s death in 2018 is not officially counted among manual scavenger deaths in Ahmedabad, even though his family was compensated by the civic body.
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Scroll.in’s RTI application was also forwarded to all 48 wards in the city, of which 27 sent back selective responses to some questions. Eighteen of these wards claimed that there had been no manual scavenger deaths in their jurisdiction since 2017.
The office of Odhav ward, where Manav Garima recorded four sewer cleaner deaths in a single incident in 2019, did not respond to Scroll.in’s question about deaths. Sarkhej ward, where Manav Garima recorded three deaths in two separate 2019 incidents, did not respond at all.
It is unclear which four of the seven 2019 deaths made it to the municipal corporation’s record books, since the corporation provided neither the names of the deceased nor the dates or location of their deaths. The corporation was also silent about whether any of the contractors or officials accused of causing these deaths had been convicted.
Human rights lawyer Ratna Vora, who has also served as a former municipal councillor in Ahmedabad, however, was categorical. “Since 2013, I have not come across a single case where a conviction has taken place,” she said.
Like most other large cities in India, Ahmedabad hires nearly all its drainage and sewer cleaners indirectly, through third-party contractors, who work under the supervision of ward-level municipal officers. Both contractors and officers are responsible for adhering to the 2013 law, which stipulates that sewers, drains and septic tanks must be cleaned with machines as far as possible. In exceptional cases where a machine fails to clear a blockage, the rules say a trained worker can be sent down into the chamber with written permission from a senior municipal officer, under strict supervision, and with all listed safety measures and equipment in place.
Despite this, when a worker dies while cleaning a sewer or septic tank, lawyers and activists in Gujarat say, it is only the contractor who is typically booked and arrested, under section 304 of the Indian Penal Code – culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
“Municipal officials are listed as the accused in very few cases,” said Parsottam Vaghela, speaking of cases across Gujarat. The arrested contractors are usually granted bail within a few months, after which they begin pushing the victim’s families to settle for a compromise, he added.
Even in the most recent case in August 2021, when three Adivasi brothers died while cleaning a sewer in the suburb of Bopal, Vaghela claimed a compromise had already been made. “The contractor and the labour supervisor were both arrested after the deaths, but they were able to get bail, and later the family [of the victims] agreed to accept compensation from the contractor,” said Vaghela. Officials at the Bopal Police Station who investigated the case were not available for comment.
Under the 2013 law, the penalty for engaging a person in the manual cleaning of a sewer is either two years of imprisonment or a fine of Rs 2 lakh, or both. The penalty for causing a person’s death under section 304 of the Indian Penal Code is also two years of imprisonment. But the cases of Dalsukh Chhavaria and the three brothers in Bopal are not the only ones where the accused did not face these consequences.
“As far as I know, all the cases of manual scavenging deaths in Ahmedabad since 2013 have ended in compromises and settlements,” said Shivkumar Adiwal, an independent activist formerly a part of several sanitation workers’ unions in the city.
Such out-of-court settlements, according to lawyer Ratna Vora, are not legally permissible. “The offence of culpable homicide under section 304 is very serious and cognisable,” she said. “It is also a non-compoundable one, which means that any kind of compromise is not legally allowed.”
Difficulties in getting justice
When families of manual scavenging victims do choose to pursue a legal fight, justice is not guaranteed and may not come for years.
Take the case of Vishnu Kotiyana, who witnessed the deaths of his older brother and young cousin while they were cleaning a sewage pumping station in Odhav ward back in 2005. The two men, Jayanti and Naresh Kotiyana, were both contract-based workers, who fell unconscious after inhaling toxic gases in the deep chamber of the pumping station.
“At that time, there was no safety belt or any equipment to save a man’s life, and we did not know what to do,” said Kotiyana, who was also a sanitation worker on the team that night. “When we called the fire brigade, they first came without any oxygen masks. So we lost another hour, and they died.”
As compensation, the municipal corporation gave Rs 2 lakh to the families of each of the men, as well as sweepers’ jobs to Jayanti’s wife and Naresh’s mother. But 17 years after the incident, punitive justice is still pending.
Although a first information report was filed against the contractor in 2005 itself, it wasn’t until 2016 that the case reached the sessions court. Since then, there have been only a handful of hearings, with a government prosecutor representing Kotiyana. “The case is still going on. I don’t know why it’s taking so long,” said Kotiyana, who gave up sewer cleaning after his brother’s death and now works as an auto rickshaw driver. “Whatever the court decides now, we will accept it.”
Law-breaking at night
In Mumbai, as previously reported in this series, one reason why manual scavenging continues is the paucity of machines required to clean sewers. Ahmedabad doesn’t fare much better on this account.
At the municipal corporation’s head office, officials from the drainage department said that it has a total of 68 machines, including 16 super sucker machines and 12 jetting machines to help unclog underground sewers. The corporation also hires more of these machines on short-term contracts when required.
“We had stopped manual scavenging long before 2013 – only a few incidents have happened since then,” said Manish Shah, a drainage project officer at the municipal corporation. In the past decade, he added, the corporation has also changed its policy on providing basic safety gear to its sanitation workers. “Since no one climbs down into manholes,” Shah said, “workers just need gloves and boots at the most.” These were earlier provided directly by the corporation to the workers. “Now, since around 10 years, we give them an allowance every two years to buy the gloves and boots themselves.”
On the ground, however, workers and union leaders describe a different reality.
“Manual scavenging has definitely reduced since 2013, but it has not stopped,” said Shivkumar Adiwal, the activist who worked with sanitation workers for many years. “Even today, workers tell me they are made to enter sewers.”
Often, this happens late into the night, when the roads are empty enough for the large sewerage pipelines to be cleaned, repaired or maintained over 20 feet underground. The municipal corporation typically outsources this work to contractors big enough to purchase their own high-capacity suction and jetting machines.
“Sometimes, they have to send a worker down to insert a temporary block in the middle of a pipeline, so that sewage can be sucked out from another part that needs to be cleaned or repaired,” said Adiwal. “For this, workers are made to climb into the sewage water without any safety gear, except perhaps an oxygen mask.”
At the municipal corporation, Manish Shah acknowledged that the companies contracted to clean big drains do send workers down manholes on occasions when “dummy dams” need to be installed. “But they have trained workers who are sent down with full safety equipment,” Shah said. “If a company tries to send a worker down without safety measures, then the municipal supervisor on the site stops it.”
This was obviously not the case on the night of November 17, 2021, when an activist from Manav Garima in Chandkheda area witnessed a worker being sent down a manhole clad in nothing but a vest and shorts, with no safety gear except for a rope to lower him in. The activist’s video of the incident drew media attention, after which the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation fined the contractor Rs 25,000. This is much below the fine of Rs 2 lakh stipulated under the 2013 law for first time offenders.
Off the main roads, where sewage lines are between five and 15 feet underground, contractors provide rickshaw buckets, hand buckets and metal rods to workers for the cleaning. However, even with these tools, workers say they are often forced to touch sewage soaked garbage with their bare hands.
“We use the hand bucket to pull out the kachra [garbage] from the gutter, but to properly empty the bucket afterwards, we have to use our hands,” said Vishnu, a young contract-based worker who did not wish to reveal his full name. His contractor does not provide workers with any gloves or boots. “We have asked for it, but they don’t give,” Vishnu said.
The result of this negligence, according to another contract worker, is disease. “We have skin diseases very often,” said the worker, Girdhari Goyal. “But picking up gandagi [dirtiness] is what we have to do. We are used to it.”
The second 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.