The deaths of at least 11 workers cleaning septic tanks and sewers in different parts of India in September alone has once again raised questions about why the country continues to permit this inhuman, illegal practice, and what can be done about it.

According to data by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, since January 2017, 123 workers have died while engaging in acts of manual scavenging.

One part of the question is whether there is the political willingness to tackle the issue, which has a deep-seated caste element to it. But the other is capability. Can India switch to a less hazardous system to clean its sewers and septic tanks, and if so, are there other cities that can serve as a model?

The practice of manual scavenging involves workers physically entering sewers or septic tanks to clean out excreta. The work has historically been connected to Dalit communities in India, making its prevalence not just a question of capability but also one of social mores. India outlawed the practice in the 1990s, yet manual scavenging continues across the country, and frequently leads to deaths.

The immediate neighbourhood does not offer much in the way of positive examples for India to follow. For instance, manual scavenging is also prevalent in Pakistan. In 2017, a worker in that country fainted while cleaning a septic tank. According to reports, after he was taken to hospital, he died as the doctor refused to touch his “dirty body”. Pakistan is also grappling with a sanitation crisis. According to a report published in Dawn in March, Karachi produces more than 1,703 million litres of sewage every day. In April, the Pakistan Supreme Court ordered all sewers to be cleaned before the monsoon. A month earlier, the court-appointed judicial commissioner on water and sanitation dismissed workers who refused to clean sewers.

Bangladesh too is struggling with sewage and waste disposal. It still depends on manual labour to clean septic tanks and sewers. According to the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, only 20% of the city is served by a piped sewer network and the city relies on individuals and private contractors to manually remove septic tank sludge.

Countries a little further afield have moved to other models to manage their sewage.

Some countries have taken steps to adopt either sustainable methods of sewage disposal or use machinery to treat effluent. “Mexico adopted the ecological sanitation model, which closes the loop on sewage treatment,” said Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat. Ecological sanitation is a waste management model that treats human excreta, wash water and urine as agricultural resources that can be safely collected, stored and treated. “In America on the other hand, they use machinery but there are proper tunnels and equipment in place. Our problem is that because of caste, the government does not want to invest in any machinery. They know that there is cheap manual labour available.”

The western approach

An analysis by India Spend, based on data that the government had released in December 2015, found that 70% of India’s sewage remains untreated. When the Central Pollution Control Board carried out an inventory of sewage treatment plants in the country in 2015, it was found that there were 816 sewage treatment plants, out of which only 522 are functional. The remainder were either not functioning or under construction.

Arkaja Singh, Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, said that the country’s poor infrastructure and low engineering standards of sewers and septic tanks made them hazardous workspaces “There is an interplay of caste, poor public engineering standards, workers’ availability and poorly specified infrastructure,” she said. “Our sewage plants deal with plastic and debris together, which is wrong. This creates a lethal cocktail of gases and leads to clogging. This is not something machines can deal with either.”

She added that India borrows from countries in Europe and America when it comes to planning public infrastructure, but not in a holistic manner. For instance, Singh pointed out that there are supposed to be a number of safeguards in place in sewage treatment plants. These include the placement of certain lamps within the plant, which determine the presence of harmful gases. Such safeguards are rarely, if ever, seen in India. “They [western countries] have industrial safety standards in place which clearly specify and distinguish between safe and unsafe work,” she said.

Singh pointed out that a number of Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, have successfully tackled the problem of sewage management.

Malaysia’s transformation

In Malaysia, for instance, sewerage management has evolved in a phased manner from primitive systems to more mechanical and automated systems since the country’s independence in 1957, a study by the Centre for Policy Research in 2017 noted. The study said that this was “mainly due to the development of technologies in the sewerage industry. The evolution has also involved the movement from non-mechanical systems to more mechanical and automated systems. New and improved equipment has also been continuously introduced due to technological advancements. Over time, this has increased the expectations regarding environmental standards and the skill level in the design, construction.”

Ambarish Karunanithi, the researcher who conducted the study, said that the transformation required political will. “In the 1950s there were instances of Chinese migrants who were made to do manual scavenging,” said Karunanithi. “It was not an overnight decision. Malaysia started to make this shift to mechanisation not because there was activism in place to eradicate manual scavenging like in India, but because they wanted to promote the country as a tourist destination. There was a big push from the government for this.”

The study also pointed out the approach taken by the Malaysian government, which highly subsidised the construction and maintenance of sewage plants. They also carried out surveys and outreach programmes to educate citizens about how often they should get their septic tanks cleaned. “They gave people enough time to adjust to the tightened standards,” said Karunanithi. “Now, the workers who clean septic tanks will not even go inside. If they see that the tank can’t be cleaned, they will build another one.”

So, if technical solutions are available, why is there no action by Indian authorities to end manual scavenging?

“The government is comfortable because they know that there are a group of people who are forced to do this job,” said Karunanithi. “If there was no one to do it, then they would have used their brains to start modifying designs of the sewage plants.”

Shomona Khanna, a lawyer at the Supreme Court who has represented the Safai Karmachari Andolan in several cases, said there is complete denial on the part of the state machinery when it comes to manual scavenging. “Whether it is the state, Centre or even the Indian Railways, the common argument they give is that whatever is happening is not under the purview of manual scavenging,” she said. “In cases that I have worked on, the argument from the state is that since workers do not carry excreta on their head, it is not manual scavenging. The Indian Railways has argued that since they have flush latrines installed, workers cleaning the waste from the tracks is not manual scavenging. Why is it that the Indian state has not been able to find a solution? Why are a particular set of lives so expendable?”