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 theengineer 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.
Bezwada Wilson: This is not a safety issue; this is a systemic problem that is over 5000 years old. We know very clearly that there is a problem. We don’t have the sewage lines, and we don’t have enough facilities to clean up our own mess. Thereby, some human being has to do it. They happen to be in the bottom layer of the ladder of caste, so they are Dalits mostly. They are untouchable, so they are forced to do this. Why I am saying forced—a day after the incident, I visited that place. I had to stay far away from the septic tank—the smell was too much. And it was poisonous. In such circumstances, any human being, how will they go with any equipment? The rules under the Employment as Manual Scavengers Act say that nobody should be allowed to enter a septic tank, and still it is happening everywhere. But somebody will say, “Okay aur thoda hai, so please go. Saaf karke aa jao” (A little more work is needed, please clean it and come). So they enter. They are forcing the people in such circumstances.
Now, everybody from the prime minister to the chief minister to the district magistrate says they are not responsible. The MCD is saying they are not responsible, the contractor is saying they are not responsible, and there is competition between everybody to say that they are not responsible. So this is the condition of our democracy. We have not matured as a democracy at all. There could have been a new kind of leadership, which emerged and took responsibility and said, “Yes, I am responsible … and I will see that in the future this will not happen.” And to say, “In order for this to happen, I need this much of machinery, I need this much of money and I need this much of time.” This kind of course of action is not coming. Governments are coming and going, but not one politician cares about all this.
Our own citizens are dying every day, they happen to be Dalits. If two citizens die in the correct place and come from correct family there will be outrage across the country. But when the scavengers are dying, they don’t even feel like there is something wrong going on.
AP: What do you think of the media coverage of these incidents?
BW: I don’t have complaints about the media. Most of the newspapers had the news [of the recent deaths] on the first page, so the media attention is there. But the responses are very problematic. There is no political will at all. The prime minister must investigate the problem—it is the whole nation’s problem, it is not a pocket problem.
AP: Usually when deaths in manholes related to manual scavenging occur, the police registers a case under Section 304A of the IPC, which refers to criminal negligence, and not under the MS Act. What are the challenges regarding registering a case under the act?
BW: This is not negligence, this is murder. According to the SC/ST act also they have to file the case, once you file they will get a one-lakh [rupee] compensation, immediately—that is fee. Next is the Rs 10 lakh compensation for the people who died under the Manual Scavengers Act. Third important thing is to punish the culprit who was arrested.
You have to find [the culprit]. You have to put it under murder. Then the people will know that you cannot do this. Otherwise, you cannot arrest anybody—if you arrest anybody under negligence it looks small. You need to have a responsible person, like a chief minister, like a prime minister or a district magistrate or the Jal Board. If a private vehicle gets into an accident on the road, will the government say that it is a private business and I can’t get involved? When people are dying it is not a private matter. Ye sarkari businesshai(This is the government’s business). This is a complete washing off the hands by the state. They have to understand they cannot play these kinds of games. This is a very pathetic and inhuman way of treating people.
AP: An inter-ministerial task force recently counted up to53,236 people involved in manual scavenging in India, a four-fold rise from the 13,000-odd such workers accounted for in official records until 2017. What challenges have you faced regarding documenting manual scavengers across the country?
BW: The challenge is they are not going door-to-door to identify the scavengers. These surveys have camps in the district headquarters in one or two places, and they ask the scavengers across the district to come there and then enroll. That, for the scavengers, is very difficult because they lose the work and can’t afford that. They can’t travel—who will pay for them to come and go? So in this instance, many have not enrolled.
We pushed many people to go and enroll—“Go, at least you’ll get some money from the government” so they went. And these camps happen for a very short window—about one or two days, and in this less period, they [scavengers] are not able to organise themselves. Give one or two months, and then it’s okay, but you tell them one or two days, and sometimes they don’t even know [that they can get enrolled].
They have surveyed [less than 200] districts. We have 650 districts. We suggested that they survey 300 districts again. But I don’t know when they are going to do that. If at least something they also do, in a slow manner, it is okay. But the problem is they are interested in only making the one-time payment of Rs 40,000 and then washing their hands. And there is a rehabilitation of Rs 1 to Rs 2.5 lakh [for contravention of the MS Act 2013] which they are not talking about. So this makes a very adverse situation, and the scavengers are reluctant to even put their names as scavengers, because then they will lose everything, if you don’t give rehabilitation.
AP: The MS act of 2013 mandates the formation of a vigilance committee at the state and district level. Have these been implemented and do they function properly?
BW: This is not happening; nothing has happened. They have not even formed. And even if they have formed, it is not functioning. Maybe one or two districts across the country will meet once every month, but other than that, nothing is happening. I get notices only from one or two districts.
AP: Are there any provisions in the Swachh Bharat movement for manual scavengers? What technological provisions does the Swachh Bharat movement include?
BW: It is a scheme centred around the mass construction of toilets. The scheme will remain that. It is not “swachh bharat” and I can say nothing is going to be “swachh” even after 2019. There is no provision in Swachh Bharat for manual scavengers, they are saying that they will include, but they have not included anything.
AP: Indian Railways is one of the biggest employers of manual scavengers in the country, considering waste is dumped directly onto the tracks. Do you think the new bio-toiletswill ease the burden placed on the manual scavengers employed by the railways?
BW: The railways are the largest violators. They have converted only some 500 coaches into their bio-toilets and they have some 1,76,000 coaches. They are one of the biggest employers of manual scavengers. The speed which they are adopting is pretty pointless. So this will not achieve anything. The railway ministry has no idea about this. The railway minister has no idea about this.
AP: What has been your success rate pertaining to cases under the MS act?
BW: We do [go to court] many times. The problem is when it comes to the trial, people wonder why we are making such a big fuss only for the toilets. People don’t care. We are not really thinking of how law should happen. It’s the same in case of deaths—there is no anger; there is only pity for the life lost. Indians have a very short memory, so one day people will be angry, next day they will say, “Thik hai, wo chale gaya. Next time aisa mat karo chalo, chalo.(It’s okay, he passed away. Don’t do this the next time.)”
The interview has been edited and condensed.