The Delhi government on February 28 flagged off a fleet of 200 sewer-cleaning machines, with the aim of eradicating manual scavenging in the Capital.

Manual scavenging – a practice by which workers enter sewers and septic tanks to clean out excreta – has historically been connected to Dalit communities, making its prevalence another egregious case of caste discrimination. Though India banned the practice in 1993 and the law was amended to expand its ambit in 2013, manual scavenging continues across the country.

It is frequently fatal. Since January 2017, one person died every five days cleaning sewers, according to one estimate. In 2018, more than 10 sanitation workers died in Delhi alone while cleaning septic tanks.

Despite this, the launch of the sewer cleaning machines in Delhi has met with some criticism. Following a model in operation in Telangana, Delhi wants to make manual scavengers the owners of the machines.

Each machine costs Rs 40 lakh. Those who win tenders to own and operate them will have to pay Rs 4 lakh, or 10% of the machine’s cost, upfront. The rest of the amount will be loaned to them by the State Bank of India at an interest rate of 11.1%, to be repaid in five years.

Some critics say that the project has not done anything to change the notion that sanitation work is still the domain of the Dalit community. Others asked why the government did not buy the machines itself, contending that this gives it little involvement in the project.

Telangana model

According to Delhi Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam, the state government floated tenders to receive applications from those who wanted to own and operate the machines. The government gave preference to “families that lost their members to manual scavenging, sanitation workers and members from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities”. The contracts will run for seven years.

Gautam said that the model the Delhi government was following was similar to one practiced in Telangana. “Our aim is to make the sanitation workers entrepreneurs and get them to be the owners of the machine,” he said. “We wanted to rehabilitate the workers and also implement the prohibition of manual scavenging Act.”

He contended that it was not possible for the Delhi government to buy the machines itself “because then the project would get delayed in the bureaucracy.” He said the project started in 2017.

Ravi Kumar Narra, the national working president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an organisation that promotes entrepreneurship among members of the Dalit community, said that his group had been involved in formulating the initiative. To implement it, it has partnered with the Delhi Jal Board, which supplies Delhi’s water and operates its sewage system.

“We were involved in the preparation of the tenders, selection of machines, and identifying those who should apply,” he said. “We will also prepare a project report of this.”

The Telangana project had also been initiated by the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Narra said.

A man cleaning a sewer in Delhi. Credit: AFP
A man cleaning a sewer in Delhi. Credit: AFP

Narra said that the machines are designed to enter narrow lanes in Delhi. “The primary functions of the machine are jetting, grabbing and rodding,” he said. “All three do the job of taking the silt out. Jetting is the process of using a high pressure pump to remove different waste material while the grabber helps to hydraulically desilt the manhole. Rods which rotate at high levels remove the sludge.”

There were two good reasons for employing a model by which workers owned the machines, Narra said. One, it would not be a burden on the state exchequer. Two, the machines would be maintained regularly. “We have observed in several cases that government-owned machinery is often poorly maintained,” he said. “If workers own their own machine then it builds a sense of responsibility to maintain it.”

The owners of the machines will be paid fixed rates per running metre of the sewage lines they clear, Narra said. “The machine can run up to 500 metres every day,” he said. “In this case, the rate is Rs 17.5 per running metre which comes up to Rs 8,750 for 500 metres. This figure becomes Rs 227,500 if you calculate the rate for 26 working days.”

He added that the Delhi government would deduct Rs 80,000 every month from each worker’s fee as repayment towards the loan.

‘How is government involved?’

But Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation working to eliminate manual scavenging, asked why the Delhi government did not purchase the machines directly. “The government has received so much publicity for the initiative but they have not even given any grant or directly purchased the machines,” he said. “So how is the government even involved?”

He also criticised the government for “again giving the same occupation to the [Dalit] community”.

“The machines have been allotted to these families and workers and the responsibility of cleaning, maintaining still remains with them,” he said. “Despite the mechanisation, it is still their responsibility.”

Paul Diwakar of National Campaign of Dalit Human Rights echoed Wilson’s concerns. He said that along with technological solutions, it was important to break the relationship between caste and the profession of sanitation work.

He added that there were also concerns about job losses related to mechanisation of sewer cleaning work. “There is quite a dichotomy here,” said Diwakar. “We are caught in a mix where we do not want to be edged out of our jobs but we also want to be in control of the mechanisation.”