The Centre directed states and Union territories to bring an end to the practice of manual scavenging and cited the rising number of deaths during the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, Hindustan Times reported on Wednesday.

In a letter dated July 12, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ Secretary Durga Shanker Mishra advised the chief secretaries of all states and Union Territories to set up Emergency Response Sanitation Units in major cities having a municipal corporation, a water and sewerage board and population of more than one lakh people. These units will also be responsible for meeting sanitation emergency requests from smaller towns within a 75-km radius.

Though manual scavenging is officially banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, individuals, local bodies and contractors still force people to clean sewers and septic tanks. Workers are often not provided protective gear, training or backup support by their employers, The Hindu quoted Mishra as saying.

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The bureaucrat said that while mechanical cleaning of sewers should be promoted, there were a few instances when human entry into sewers and tanks cannot be avoided. District magistrates or municipal commissioners will be designated the Responsible Sanitation Authority and will organise the staff for the emergency units. Mishra added that those trained, equipped and certified as sewer entry professionals would be the only ones allowed to enter sewers and septic tanks.

“In case of any default, an FIR should be automatically lodged under the PEMSRA, 2013, against the principal employer, contractor, sanitary inspector of the local body as well as the individuals engaged in such hazardous task without proper authorization and equipment,” the official said.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court called for criminalising entry into sewers without safety gears. It said Rs 10 lakh compensation be given to families of those who die in such cases.