Sewer workers in India, more often than not, receive no gear for personal protection, making their working conditions dehumanising and dangerous.
According to data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), as many as 50 sewer workers, a subset of manual scavengers who almost exclusively belong to the Scheduled Caste, have died between January and June 2019. Being based on reports submitted by only eight states and UTs, this number is a gross underestimation. Further, based on data reported by 20 states and UTs, 814 deaths related to manual scavenging have occurred since 1993 when the central government outlawed the practice nation-wide by enacting The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011 found that 1,80,657 Indian households are involved in manual scavenging, despite legal sanctions against it.
Sewer workers in India, more often than not, receive no gear for personal protection, making their working conditions dehumanising and dangerous. Worse, marginalised castes are forced to undertake sewer work despite the availability of machines that perform the same function more efficiently and the majority of sewer workers are employed indirectly by state government agencies and urban local bodies. This employment is not strictly illegal since the law allows safai karamcharis to work only if they have proper protective gear, but how many actually have these? Sanitation being a state subject, the blame for the deplorable working conditions of sewer workers lies squarely with state governments. Except, maybe, for Delhi, not many states have moved to equip sanitation workers with mechanised/safer/more sanitary cleaning tools. Even if not complicit, the Centre, too, is to blame—at the very least, for its complacency, when it comes to protecting the lives of one of India’s most marginalised groups.