On 9 September 2018, five sanitation workers died due to inhalation of toxic fumes while cleaning a sewage tank in West Delhi. Several media reports regarding the incident noted that the men did not have any safety gear, indicating that the unavailability of equipment led to their death. The police reportedly registered a case against the engineer who was in charge of managing the sewage tank,under Sections 304 and 304A of the Indian Penal Code—culpable homicide and causing death due to negligence, respectively. Following extensive media coverage, the police later added charges under sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 and the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
There have been over 327 deaths related to manual scavenging in 2017 alone. Manual cleaning of sewage and excreta is a profession that has long been reserved for Dalits, with many who find themselves in the profession unable to escape it for generations. Most of India does not have a proper sewage system, resulting in the prevalence of dry latrines, which in turn requires sanitation workers and manual scavengers to clear latrines on a regular basis.
Employment of scavengers or the construction of dry latrines became a punishable offence in 1993 with the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. Later that year, under the leadership of its national convenor Bezwada Wilson, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, ahuman rights organisation that has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, filed a PIL listing violators of the act. The situation did not improve. In 2003, SKA approached the courts again, and fought a long legal battle to get another bill passed—the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengersand their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. Though this act has been in force for over five years, its implementation has been sorely lacking—till January 2018, no convictions had taken place under it.
In light of the recent deaths, Ahan Penkar, a fact checker at The Caravan, interviewed Wilson. The SKA head discussed the challenges facing the eradication of manual scavenging, as well as the legal and social complexities of emancipating Dalits in India. He said that culprits in these cases are often charged under Section 304A of the IPC—criminal negligence—not under the MS Act. “If you arrest anybody under negligence it looks small,” he said. “You have to put it under murder. Then the people will know that you cannot do this.”
Ahan Penkar: The media and the police have said about the recent deaths that it is a safety issue. Further, cases were first filed under negligence.