Delhi banned manual scavenging—the UN defines the activity as manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling human excreta from dry latrines and sewers—on August 21, 2017. Not much longer than a year after, on Sunday, five workers died while cleaning a sewer tank in an apartment complex in the west Delhi. The men had no protective gear, as per Times of India, and were untrained. Since 1994, there have been 94 manual scavenging deaths in the national capital. The ministry of social justice and empowerment, in 2017, told the Lok Sabha that there were 300 such deaths last year in the country. The Union government had banned it through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Yet, these deaths happened and are likely to happen again—if not in Delhi, then elsewhere in the country.
A government taskforce this year reported that there were as many as 53,236 manual scavengers in just 121 districts of the country—official records from 2017 reported just fourth that, for the entire country. The actual number may be a lot higher, as Down to Earth points out, since sanitation workers employed with the Railways performing such functions had not been counted. If the government itself hasn’t been able to rehabilitate those engaged in manual scavenging, it is hardly to be expected of private players, like the Delhi apartment complex where the latest deaths happened or a prominent hotel in the heart of the national capital, where two people died in May this year, trapped in a septic tank. The Delhi Jal Board is set to mechanise sewer cleaning from October 2 this year—200 customised machines are to become part of its fleet. While mechanised cleaning should be what all states should be heading towards, the abject failure in implementing the ban on manual scavenging and rehabilitating those engaged in it continues to add to its human costs. In the absence of a deadline for execution of the rehabilitation plan envisaged under the 2013 Act, poor enumeration of manual scavengers and little in terms of punishment for official for failure to implement the ban, this anathema to human health, dignity and progress will keep claiming more lives.