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 municipal corporation of Rajkot is confident that machines have entirely replaced manual scavenging in the fourth largest city of Gujarat.
To prove this, the corporation shared reams of documents through post and email, and a senior official even followed up on phone to make sure the documents had reached this reporter.
Among them was a public notice from 2019 warning citizens of strict legal consequences if they flouted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 by hiring workers to manually clean a septic tank or sewer. There was a page of the Gujarati newspaper in which the notice was published. There was information about all the machines owned or hired by the Rajkot civic body to clean drains and sewers, as well as invoices worth Rs 2.1 crore for 14 machines purchased since 2013. There were bills for contracts given to a private company for hiring, operating and maintaining more such equipment to mechanise sewer cleaning.
“If there is a blockage in a sewer that a machine cannot unclog, then we just break the whole sewer line and build it again,” said Bharat Dholaria, the deputy executive engineer in the drainage department. Dholaria said there was one death of a worker who “fell” in a sewer in 1995, after which the municipal corporation became very strict. “No one is made to climb down in the sewer – it is forbidden.”
So confident was the corporation of its claims, it even sent the names and contact numbers of all its contractors and the 268 sewer cleaners who officially work in the city.
When Scroll.in made phone calls to several of the 268 sewer workers on the RMC’s list, most were either hesitant to talk to the media or reiterated whatever the officials from the corporation had said. But three of the workers – speaking to Scroll.in on the phone on the condition of anonymity – attested to a very different reality.
“Yes, workers are asked to enter gutters,” said Ganpat Valmiki (name changed), one of the three workers. “They [the contractors] make us enter gutters at least three to four times a month.”
Conversations with these workers and visits to municipal offices in Rajkot revealed that while the RMC has increased its use of sewer cleaning machines in the past three years, it has still has a long way to go before it can claim to be manual scavenging free.
‘Out of compulsion’
Ganpat Valmiki used to believe he was rather lucky. Most people born into his Dalit sub-caste had no option but to work as sweepers or cleaners – society allowed them few other opportunities. But as a young man, Valmiki had managed to become a blacksmith, securing a job in a small factory in Rajkot.
Then in 2014, the factory shut down and Valmiki suddenly found himself unemployed. After weeks of being turned away from other jobs, he realised his luck had run out. With a family to feed, he set aside his pride and took up the only work he was able to get: cleaning sewers for a private contractor hired by the Rajkot Municipal Corporation.
“I had to take this work out of majboori, compulsion,” said 45-year-old Valmiki. The sewers he cleans are three to five feet deep, full of domestic waste from toilets and kitchens. When the lines are clogged, workers use long, interlinked metal rods to prod, hook and pull out waste. But every once in a while, he said, contractors ask him and his colleagues to climb down into the gutters and clean them manually.
“Initially I said no, but the contractor told me that I needed the money,” Valmiki said. In Rajkot, it is common for contractors to provide sanitation workers with loans while hiring them, which workers pay off gradually from their wages. “If we refuse to enter the gutter, the contractor will say, return the full money right now.”
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Paras Moriya (name changed), also a sewer cleaner in his 40s, works for a different contractor in a ward near Valmiki’s. “Sometimes we have to get down into the sewers to clean them,” Moriya said. “Mostly we are made to do that while cleaning before the monsoons.”
As contract-based workers, Valmiki, Moriya and their colleagues get paid barely Rs 300 a day, forcing many to supplement their incomes with any other sanitation work they can get. One such worker is Alok Rabariya (name changed), who not only cleans sewers for an RMC contractor, but also takes up private freelance work to clean septic tanks and domestic gutters. “This way, I earn around Rs 20,000 a month,” said Rabariya, 38.
While his contractor makes him enter sewers manually a few times a year, Rabariya’s private work is almost always manual. “Sometimes, if the client can pay for it, I call for a machine to clean septic tanks,” he said. “But mostly we clean by hand, without any gloves or mask.”
When asked about these three workers’ claims of being made to clean sewers manually, Bharat Dholaria, the deputy executive engineer from the drainage department, said that the workers must be referring to the cleaning of “house chambers”. These, he said, are shallow gutters outside individual homes, from where domestic sewage eventually flows into bigger drains.
“House chambers are just two or three feet deep, and do not emit any gas,” Dholaria said. “They are usually cleaned with metal rods, but if needed, a worker can just step inside and unclog it - only his feet would be in the chamber and he can do the work standing up. But no one is ever made to climb down into the bigger manholes.”
‘You can hammer a nail into my hand’
The question of whether sanitation workers in Rajkot are given adequate safety gear to work with is another contentious matter between the RMC and several workers on the field.
Bharat Dholaria, the deputy executive engineer from the drainage department, claimed that every contractor hired by the municipal corporation was responsible for giving their workers safety gear for daily use, such as gloves and boots. “If a contractor does not provide these, then we fine them. But generally we don’t need to fine anyone,” said Dholaria. “Workers are given gloves, but often they themselves don’t wear them.”
The RMC’s solid waste management department, which is in charge of sanitation workers who sweep the city’s streets, had a similar claim. “For the past six years, we have been giving rubber gloves to all workers every 15 days, but workers don’t feel comfortable using them,” said Nilesh Parmar, a senior official in the solid waste management department. “We also give sweepers aprons once a year and boots once in two years.”
But workers had a different story to tell. Valmiki, Moriya and Rabariya all claimed that they had never been provided with any gloves or boots in all their years of sewer cleaning. This meant that even on regular work days, when they were not expected to climb down into the sewers, they had to use their bare hands to insert metal rods into gutters and then wipe wet waste off the rods.
Even workers who spoke to Scroll.in in the presence of a supervisor drew attention to their hands. “See how hard and black my hands have become after all these years of handling the rods?” said Kishor Vaghela, a sewer cleaner, who Scroll.in contacted through the list provided by RMC. “You can hammer a nail into my hand and I won’t feel anything.”
Vaghela and a few of his colleagues had agreed to meet this reporter on a street in their ward during their lunch break, but eventually their supervisor also showed up at the meeting. When the supervisor claimed that the workers used their bare hands because they were uncomfortable with the plastic gloves that the contractor provided, Vaghela and his colleagues nodded and echoed his words.
Although street sweepers do not deal with wet sewage, they face similar hazards in the absence of safety gear. “All I am given is a broom – no gloves or even a dustpan to pick up the piles of kachra [trash],” said Sangita Parmar, 45, a contract-based sweeper in Rajkot. “I have been injured many times, by pieces of glass or other sharp things. And we get no medical help if we are injured at work.”
Access to medical aid and other welfare benefits is another contentious aspect of the sanitation work in Rajkot.
In its progress report for the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge, a nationwide initiative launched in 2020 under the Swachh Bharat Mission to promote the mechanisation of sewer cleaning across urban India, the RMC claimed that all of its contractors provide sewer workers with provident fund, insurance, overtime charges and emergency medical facilities. The report, submitted by the civic body to the central government, contained identical “testimonials” from two workers, vouching for these claims.
In his conversation with Scroll.in, Dholaria said that even though the municipal corporation had not directly hired sewer cleaners as permanent employees for 22 years, the RMC made sure that contract-based workers received the same welfare benefits from their contractors.
“We release a contractor’s bill only after verifying that he has put proper minimum wages, PF [provident fund] and ESI [Employees’ State Insurance] in each worker’s account,” Dholaria said.
Contrary to this claim, Ganpat Valmiki said he gets no payment for overtime work, no provident fund and no insurance. “In fact, our pay is cut if we are ever absent,” said Valmiki.
Kishor Vaghela and his colleagues have spent years asking the RMC for permanent jobs precisely to be able to avail of these welfare benefits. “Permanent workers get a provident fund, and a salary of at least Rs 45,000, and a bonus, and quarters to live in,” said Vaghela. “We contract workers get nothing – we earn just Rs 9,000 a month and live in slums. But they are not hiring any permanent workers in the drainage department.”
When asked why many contractors were not actually giving workers the safety gear or welfare benefits that they are entitled to, Dholaria dismissed the question with a joke. “The word ‘contractor’ means someone who does wrong things,” he said. “Tell me, how can they be controlled?”
‘Hardly needed’ instruments
While manual scavenging and the exploitation of contract-based sanitation workers remains a problem in Rajkot, the city’s municipal corporation has undoubtedly made some improvements in the process of mechanising the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. A lot of these improvements took place after the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge was launched in 2020.
According to the RMC’s progress report, for instance, it had 30 desilting machines before 2020, but acquired nine more after the Challenge began. It also had no power bucket machines or power rodding apparatus before 2020, but hired one and nine of each respectively in the past three years. Scroll.in saw many of these vehicles come and go during the day at a yard near Dholaria’s office.
Before the Challenge, RMC also had no safety instruments like gas monitors, oxygen masks, full-body water suits, nylon rope ladders or body harness sets – all of which are mandatory for every municipal corporation to have at the ward level, under the rules of the 2013 law against manual scavenging. These safety instruments are to be used in cases of emergency, if a worker has to climb down into a sewer to inspect or fix a blockage that a machine cannot do on its own. “We have all these instruments now,” said Dholaria, who had his staff bring out the whole array of equipment for display. “If a contractor feels that they might be needed, he can come to the office and ask for them.”
The RMC has also hired 18 contract-based sewer entry professionals to officially perform the task of entering sewers during such emergencies. “But they are hardly needed three or four times a year. In general, they are not needed,” said Dholaria.
For workers like Valmiki and Rabariya, who enter sewers far more frequently than three or four times a year, this safety equipment might as well not exist. Rabariya, for instance, laughed when asked if he had ever been provided with an oxygen mask. “Oxygen mask? Where would we get them from?” he said. “We just wait for the [toxic] gases to come out of a gutter or tank, and then we go down in our regular clothes, without any masks.”
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.