Four years ago, Parliament passed a law that bans human beings from manually cleaning sewers and septic tanks. However, as the increasing number of fatalities of sanitation workers in sewers across India makes clear, this law is honoured more in the breach.

In the national capital Delhi alone, 10 people died in four separate incidents between July 15 and August 20 after they were sent without any safety equipment to clean sewers and tanks. Of them, some died when they jumped in to rescue fellow workers who had collapsed inside after inhaling toxic gases.

“There is no political will to implement the law,” said Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a human rights organisation that has been campaigning for the complete eradication of manual scavenging. “It is not only in Delhi, it has been so in the entire country. Nobody seems concerned about the dignity of the underprivileged ones who get the dirty job done risking their lives.”

Wilson pointed out that there is still no official national database for such deaths. Data collected by the Safai Karmachari Andolan revealed that this year alone, across India, at least 90 workers lost their lives – an average of 11 people a month – while cleaning sewers, drains and septic tanks.

Following the deaths of sanitation workers in the national capital over July and August, the Delhi government announced that all sewer cleaning would henceforth only be done using machines. But it is yet to draw up an action plan for this proposal, whose implementation is likely to face a number of challenges. Besides the apathy that Wilson referred to, Delhi’s drains, sewers and storm water drains are managed by multiple authorities who, in turn, outsource sewer cleaning work to several third-party contractors making it difficult to monitor them.

What the law says (and what it does not)

Section 7 of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits persons from being engaged or employed for the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. However, the Act is silent about alternative methods to get the job done. In December 2013, the Government of India came up with the Rules for this law that mention the mechanical equipment and devices that should be used for this work. The Rules also lay down guidelines for emergency situations that might demand human intervention in the cleaning process.

However, the Rules do not define what would constitute an emergency situation. Human rights activists say that this ambiguity is often exploited by contractors to hire people for hazardous cleaning work. This works out to be cheaper than buying or hiring machines for the contractors, but is risky for the workers.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Laws vs on ground situation

Delhi has a multi-level drainage system that is handled by different agencies. While the smaller colony drains come under the jurisdiction of the municipal corporations, the sewer network comes under the Delhi Jal Board, the storm water drains on the main roads and sewer systems inside government premises are maintained by the Public Works Department, and the canal-sized drains are maintained by the Delhi government’s Department of Irrigation and Flood Control.

To clean drains under their jurisdiction, municipal agencies employ both nala beldaars (designated drain cleaners on their payrolls) and contract labourers. On paper, the work is fully mechanised. But things differ on the ground.

“Cleaning of municipal drains often requires manual intervention as most contractors do not have the necessary machines,” said Rajendra Mewati, leader of a sanitation workers’ union in the city. “They do not hesitate to ask sanitation workers to clean the filth manually and the poor men seldom reject the work as they see some extra money coming.”

The cleaning of bigger drains and sewers that are maintained by state government agencies is mostly outsourced to contractors.

Wilson said that here too, mechanisation remains on paper. “While equipment like jetting and suction machines and safety gear for sanitation workers in case of emergency situations remain there as mandatory on paper, they fail to materialise on the ground,” he said.

Fixing accountability

In the four incidents reported in Delhi over July and August in which 10 workers died, the sanitation workers were found to be doing their jobs without any safety gear. While the employers in two of the cases were private individuals, the police found it difficult to pin responsibility in the other two cases. In these cases, three people died while cleaning a sewer line in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, which is maintained by the Delhi Jal Board, and one worker died while cleaning a sewer in the premises of the Lok Nayak Hospital in Central Delhi that is maintained by the Public Works Department. Cases of negligence causing death were registered in all cases, but the contractors in the Lajpat Nagar and Lok Nayak Hospital cases are absconding. Delhi Police officials said that the government agencies in these two cases tried to absolve themselves of responsibility claiming they had no knowledge of how contractors were getting the cleaning work done. The police finally arrested a junior Delhi Jal Board engineer and a storekeeper at Lok Nayak Hospital in connection with these cases even as the search for the absconding contractors continues.

“These cases have brought to light how the hazardous process of sewer and drain cleaning in the city remains largely unmonitored,” said a senior government official who did not wish to be identified. “The agencies are now mulling over preparing lists of authorised contractors and training them on the mechanised process. So far, there is no such organised list and no record of action taken against errant contractors. No one was bothered until these cases happened.”

Hyderabad model

For its mechanisation plan, the Delhi government is looking at a model Hyderabad adopted earlier this year in which the city’s municipal water supply and sewerage board tied up with the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and provided a group of sanitation workers with small sewer jetting machines, and trained them how to use them. These machines use high pressure jets to clear obstructions in drains and sewers. The people who have been trained, many of whom have manually cleaned drains for years, now oversee the sewer cleaning process in their areas.

“We are considering the Hyderabad plan,” Delhi Water Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam said on Monday. “This weekend, teams from Hyderabad were invited to Delhi and we had long discussions on the matter. Just give us some time, we are chalking out a scientific action plan.”

But on August 22, a day after Delhi announced 100% mechanisation of sewer and drain cleaning work, the government seemed to backtrack on its mechanisation proposal a little. “There are areas where machines cannot reach,” said Water Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam. “In cases where human intervention is required, Delhi Jal Board officials will supervise the work. Workers will be sent in only after equipping them with safety gear.”

This did not go down well with human rights activists.

“In an age when machines are being sent to Mars, how can any government agency claim that there are areas in the city in which sewer cleaning machines cannot be sent,” asked Wilson.

However, while speaking to on Monday, Gautam shared new plans through which the Delhi government plans to ensure that machines, and not people, cleaned the city’s sewers.

“Smaller machines and longer suction pipes will be arranged for congested areas, and all future tenders of sewer cleaning shall be floated keeping such requirements in mind,” he said. “We are aiming at making sewer cleaning in Delhi a 100% mechanised and organised process in which all parties involved will be registered and proper accountability is established at each stage.”

Wilson pointed out that smaller machines have been around for a while now and could have been used earlier too. “Everything comes back to the question of political will,” he emphasised. “It is sad that it took them so many deaths to wake up.”

Bigger problem

But even if the government succeeds in ensuring that machines are brought in for cleaning work, will they necessarily work in all situations?

This brings the focus to the larger issue of garbage that clogs up big and small drains and sewers across the country.

A senior Public Works Department official pointed out that storm water drains in Delhi are clogged with solid waste such as construction material and plastic. He said suction machines fail to work in these conditions, which inevitably demand manual intervention. “It is a failure at multiple levels in which multiple agencies play their roles,” the official said. “A 100% mechanisation plan will never materialise unless such inefficiencies are addressed.”