Sanjay Kumar, 30, has lost count of the number of times he has manually cleaned a sewer. He works with a private contractor that does not provide him safety gear. “I do not even bother lighting a matchstick or checking for cockroaches before I go in,” he said. “If I need a rope, I have to buy it with my money.”

On Tuesday, Sanjay Kumar reached Delhi from Karauli in Rajasthan to join a protest against the continuing deaths of sewer workers in the country. “I want to help end untouchability and casteism,” he explained. “We are forced to do this work. Why is there so much injustice against us?”

In September alone, at least 11 workers have died cleaning septic tanks and sewers across the country. India banned manual scavenging in 2013, but it continues to be rampantly practised. Manual scavenging involves workers physically cleaning sewers and septic tanks, or clearing human waste from latrines. The practice has historically been forced on the Dalits.

The protest, organised by Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, saw workers from across India gather at Jantar Mantar to condemn the recent deaths.

Speaking to at the protest, Communist Party of India leader D Raja said the deaths reflected poorly on Swachh Bharat, the Narendra Modi government’s cleanliness drive, but also on the society. “This is a national shame,” he said. “The government talks of sending human beings to space but they do not even have proper technology or machinery to end manual scavenging. This should be the concern of Parliament.”

The protest saw relatives of the dead workers demand stringent action against the authorities responsible for the deaths. “At home, everyone’s heart is broken,” said Narendra Kumar, whose brother-in-law Vishal Kumar was among the five workers who died cleaning a sewer at DLF Capital Greens in Delhi’s Moti Nagar earlier this month. The developer DLF had contracted the building’s maintenance to a company called JLL, which subcontracted the work to two other firms, Unnati and Crest.

Narendra Kumar's relative Vishal Kumar died cleaning a sewer in Delhi this month. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

“Such a young boy has died,” Narendra Kumar said. “It was not even his job. But he was forced. I want that no child should have to work like this. We have only been given assurance…no action. No body from DLF, JLL or Unnati came to us.”

Mohammad Haiyul said he was protesting against the government’s apathy towards the death of his son Sarfaraz, who also died in Moti Nagar. “We want justice for our five children,” he said. “We want harsh punishment for those responsible.”

It is two weeks since the deaths, Haiyul said, but the families are yet to receive any compensation.

Sewer workers, activists and students from across India joined the protest at Jantar Mantar. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

‘I am scared’

Hira Lal, 37, had come from Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab. He started working as a manual scavenger when he was 16, he said, and saw his father die of ailments that had resulted from doing the same work. “There is no safety for me in this,” Hira Lal said. “I have to have some alcohol before I enter a sewer because I am scared. I have developed some skin problems because of going in without wearing a mask.”

Purana Mal, also from Karauli, has been a manual scavenger since he was eight. “My mother used to take me along to clean,” said Purana Mal, now 60. “I don’t earn a salary. I just get one roti for cleaning dry latrines outside houses. I am not even allowed inside the house. This is how it is where I come from.”

Family members of the dead workers at the protest. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Shamo Devi started working as a manual scavenger only after she got married. “My mother-in-law used to do it and she gave me the job once I came into the family,” she said. Devi, 45, who lives in Uttarakhand’s Roorkee, earns about Rs 3,000 a month. “No safety gear is given to us,” she said. “My children come with me after school and they keeping saying they will never do this. I just want them to get good jobs.”

Dhalan Singh, 40, said he came to protest from Rajasthan to ensure his children never have to do what he does. He would quit himself if he could find other work. “Because of casteism, I am unable to start my own business,” he said. “People will not touch what I sell…there is so much untouchability in Rajasthan. Even if they take money from me, they will wash the notes and coins.”

The protestors burn effigies of manholes and sewers. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

‘Where is Swachh Bharat?’

Many activists and a few politicians echoed Raja that the recent deaths reflected poorly on Swachh Bharat.

“We have cleaned the country for 5,000 years,” said Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karmachari Andolan. “We cannot allow human killing in a democratic society. This is about dignity and the Constitution.”

He added that his organisation had submitted a memorandum regarding the recent deaths to the prime minister and waited for a response before launching the protest.

Many protestors said the recent deaths reflected poorly on Swachh Bharat. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

“Where is Swachh Bharat?” asked Paul Diwakar of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. “These spates of deaths have been happening right under our nose. Cleanliness is only where the rich live. Who is responsible for that? Our community has been kept under the norms of violence by the government, society and the caste system. We are forced to do this work.”

Noting that the Modi government has allotted Rs 17,843 crore for Swachh Bharat in this year’s Budget, Raja said, “I don’t find any political will. There is no determination from the government to put an end to this. People are made to do this work from generation to generation. We have to fight the caste system. The government denies compensation to families, denies rehabilitation to manual scavengers. This is about social justice, equality and human dignity.”

There were many students at the protest and they shouted slogans and sang songs against manual scavenging and the caste system. “Incidents like these require our immediate attention,” said Divya Nanda, 22, one of the protesting students. “There has been so much advertising on Swachh Bharat and a cess was introduced but the fact is that it is the institutionalisation of caste that has resulted in this.”

'It's the institutionalisation of caste that has resulted in this.' Photo credit: Aabid Shafi