Two Dalit men died of asphyxiation while cleaning a sewage chamber at the staff quarters of Ordnance Clothing Factory in Tamil Nadu’s Avadi on Thursday, reported The Indian Express.

K Moses (40) and C Devan (50) had been hired by a private contractor to remove a sewage block at the quarters. However, they were not provided with any safety gear, the police said.

The contractor and a supervisor have been arrested. The contractor has been booked on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and provisions of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The police said that Moses fainted soon after he entered the sewage and inhaled toxic gases. Devan also inhaled the fainted inside the pit while trying to rescue Moses.

“The other workers and onlookers soon alerted the fire and rescue personnel and the local police rushed to the spot,” the police said. “The firefighters retrieved the workers and sent them to the hospital. Devan was in an unconscious state but Moses had died when he was brought out. At the hospital, Devan also failed to respond to the treatment.”

Data on sewer deaths

The central government informed in March this year that 1,035 persons have died while being engaged in hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks across India since 1993.

In addition, of the 616 cases registered under the Manual Scavenging Act against contractors for not providing safety gear to sanitation workers, only one has ended up in conviction.

Manual scavenging – or the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewer lines or septic tanks – is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But the practice remains prevalent in several parts of the country.

The Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was intended to deal with the problem by identifying all manual scavengers in the country and providing them with means to employ safer practices or give them alternative livelihoods. However, the budgetary allocation towards it has seen a significant decline since 2019.

In the Union Budget for 2019-’20, the government had allocated Rs 110 crore for the scheme, but the revised estimate stood at Rs 99.93 crore. While the 2020-’21 Budget estimate was Rs 110 crore, the revised estimate came to Rs 30 crore. For the 2021-’22 Budget, the government had initially allocated Rs 100 crore, but the revised estimate came to Rs 43.31 crore.