On 28 June, three workers died in a drain while working on an interceptor sewage project of the Delhi Jal Board, in West Delhi. The DJB is the primary authority responsible for the capital’s sewage system. A couple of weeks after the incident, the DJB organised a workshop for sewer workers in Delhi’s Talkatora stadium. At the event, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi who is also the chairperson of the DJB, announced that the government would provide safety gears to sewer cleaners. “Please do not be careless. You all are being given safety gear for free,” he said. “I hope and trust that we do not hear any sewer deaths at least in Delhi in future.”
The chief minister failed to answer—or even question—why the practice of manual scavenging, and sewage cleaning without protective gear, both outlawed across the country, was still taking place in the national capital. Instead, he focussed on the supposed carelessness of the deceased worker.
Delhi produces around 10,000 metric tonnes of waste daily and the burden of disposing it off is borne by the manual scavengers and sewage workers of the capital, who are predominantly from the Valmiki community—a Dalit sub-caste. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a statutory body for the welfare of sanitation workers, 38 people have died while cleaning sewers in Delhi in the past two years. The negligence of the state government’s bodies, the Public Works Department and the DJB, was a contributing factor in some of these deaths.
Over its years governing Delhi, the AAP has announced different schemes—such as allotting sewer-cleaning machines—which have helped it gain legitimacy as a party dedicated to eradicating manual sewer cleaning. But like all preceding governments of the national capital, the Kejriwal government has failed its sewer cleaners. “This Delhi government does not care for manual scavengers. They will always announce a scheme after a death and pretend to care about their plight,” Bezwada Wilson, the head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a human-rights organisation that campaigns against manual scavenging, said. Indeed, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has time and again claimed the support of manual scavengers. Wilson added that it is not just Kejriwal, every few months a government authority expresses some “renewed passion” to help manual scavengers.
Manual scavenging refers to the manual cleaning of sewage and excreta, which has historically been a caste-based occupation assigned to the Dalit community in India. The British gave legal legitimacy to the practice by creating official positions for manual scavengers in government bodies such as municipalities, and specifically hired Dalits for the task. Post-independence, the union government formed multiple committees to examine the plight of manual scavengers. Time and again, these committees recommended reforms to improve the working condition of manual scavengers. But for nearly fifty years, their findings did not translate into concrete legislation. The practice is still prevalent across the country as most of India does not have a proper sewage system. Even in areas with a functional sewage system, people are forced to enter toxic sewers and septic tanks for construction or cleaning purposes, thereby risking their lives.