In the last two years, 1,268 workers have died while cleaning out sewers. Yet most people are barely aware of how widespread manual scavenging – where workers remove untreated human excreta from sewers and latrines – still is and how deadly the job can be.

On Thursday, nearly a hundred young Dalits from across the country concluded Bhima Yatra, a 125-day march across the country to raise awareness about the apathy and discrimination faced by sewer cleaners and other sanitation workers.

“Every death of a worker inside the sewer is a political murder, not a mere accident," the workers chanted. "Till manual scavenging ends, no political party can rightly claim the political legacy of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar."

A majority of those who participated in the 125-day campaign that started from Dibrugarh in Assam in December 2015 and traveled to more than 500 districts were family members of Dalit workers who have died while cleaning or clearing blockages inside sewers.

Suffocated inside sewers

Pinky, in her late 20s, had joined the campaign from Uttar Pradesh. Her husband 30-year old Pawan had died inside a sewer while working as a contractual sanitation worker in Delbhariya in Varanasi city at a wage of Rs 3000 monthly in 2013.

“He used to enter a sewer nearly every day to clear the more difficult blockages," said Pinky, who held her three-year old daughter in her arms. "He left for work at 9 am. At at 6 pm, I found out that he had died inside the gutter. My husband's employers told us, 'this life and death is not in our hands'.”

Pinky's husband 30-year old Pawan died inside a sewer in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh in 2013

Pammi, who had joined the orange bus of Bhim Yatris while it was passing through Haryana said she had joined the campaign to raise one question. "Sewer mein hatya ka zimmedaar kaun. Who is accountable for recurrent deaths inside sewers?" she asked. "On our journey, we fought for families of those who have died inside sewers. We pointed to a three-year old law on rehabilitation of such families, but officials would make excuses saying they have no funds."

Dalit activist Mohana Priya asked if there is so much technological advancement, why are Dalits still being sent inside sewers at all.

Why do dry laterines still exist?

Some young Dalit social workers shared stories of how they had grown up watching their parents, or relatives carrying and disposing human excreta from dry laterines in cities, banned by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993.

“My father worked in Coimbatore as a manual scavenger after he lost his first job. Once he started this work, he could not find alternate employment even if he tried,” said Mohana Priya, an activist from Tamil Nadu. “Growing up, we saw him come back home from work with injuries sometimes, and saw him very upset. He would tell me and my sister, 'you have to study',” said Priya, who is now studying for an undergraduate degree in social work.

Mohana Priya, a student of social work, asks why Dalits are being sent inside sewers despite technological advancement

Vikas Kumar, a young activist said his relatives continued to do manual scavenging of laterines in Ranchi. “If they even go to a hair saloon, the owners turns them away.”

As per the Socio Economic Caste Census released in 2015, there are 1.8 lakh manual scavengers in India, with Maharashtra recording the highest numbers at 63,713 households, Madhya Pradesh at 23,093 families, and Uttar Pradesh at 17,619 households. But activists say this is an under-estimation and the real number may be five to six times this number. A five-year outlay of Rs 4,656 crore in 2013 to rehabilitate manual scavengers was reduced to Rs 10 crores in the current Budget.

In 2013, the Parliament passed a more comprehensive law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, that laid out statutory requirements to identify manual scavengers and provide alternate jobs to them. This law for the first time, included workers involved in cleaning sewers, tanks and open railway tracks as well.

Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of the Safaai Karamchari Andolan said that were 1,268 recorded instances of deaths inside sewers between 2014-16. The law provides Rs 40,000 for rehabilitation of manual scavengers, besides a few other benefits, and allots Rs 10 lakh as compensation in case of death inside a sewer. “They say they will give Rs 10 lakh if your family member does inside a sewer. 'Will any of you accept Rs 10 lakh if your own family member dies inside a sewer', we want to ask them?” said Wilson. “Why are human beings being sent inside sewers in the first place? This has to end,” he said.