“Modi deserves another chance as this country’s head,” a sanitation worker remarked in February. He was responding to a gesture that made headlines because of its unprecedented humility, wherein the Prime Minister washed the feet of five sanitation workers during a visit to the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela. The Prime Minister tweeted that he would “cherish” the moment and lauded the safai karamcharis, stating “no one can know the labour they [safai karamcharis] have put in the Kumbh. Cleanliness has been the trademark of this Kumbh.”
Yet, within two months of that extraordinary act of felicitation, sanitation workers are offering sharp rebukes of the Prime Minister. They say he has failed them during his time in office and, as India heads to the polls, they will not vote for him again.
Sanitation has been a priority of this government since it came to power, best exemplified through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan – the ambitious project of cleaning India by expanding access to sanitation facilities for households and inching closer to ridding the country of open defecation. Yet for India’s 770,000-strong community of sanitation workers, their suffering continues unabated and overlooked.
“Manual scavenging is illegal and has been in India since 2013. However, it remains widespread, in the process imperilling workers’ health and lives. In the last decade, it is estimated that 1,800 sanitation workers died because of asphyxiation while they were cleaning India’s sewers”
One issue Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has not addressed is how waste is handled. A mere forty percent of faecal waste in India is properly treated. This means it often finds its way into septic tanks, bucket latrines and sewers where it is not properly processed. This entails that much of the responsibility for cleaning India falls to its reserves of sanitation workers – invariably hailing from the Dalit caste.
One of the most dangerous tasks which falls to sanitation workers is manual scavenging – the process of cleaning sewers by hand. This practice of manual scavenging is illegal and has been in India since 2013. However, it remains widespread, in the process imperilling workers’ health and lives. In the last decade, it is estimated that 1,800 sanitation workers died because of asphyxiation while they were cleaning India’s sewers.
“Toxic gases resulting from cleaning fluids and excrement may build up in areas of the sewer, rising to levels that pose severe risks to those breathing them,” Health Issues India reported last year. “The septic environment poses severe risk of infection should the worker have any open cuts. This risk of infection is more considerable when taking into account the potential for open cuts occurring while within the sewer.”
Adding to the risk is the lack of protective equipment afforded to manual scavengers, who often descend into the sewers without ventilators, face masks, hard hats and gloves. In many cases, workers perform their task alone, entailing that help is not available when needed.
Recent occurrences shed light and put the face of human tragedy on statistics. In March, six workers died in Tamil Nadu after inhaling toxic gases while cleaning a septic tank. Earlier that month, two workers cleaning a sewage line in Varanasi – the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency – suffocated to death. Such occurrences are as frequent as they are tragic – and sanitation workers have had enough.
“Modi pledged in 2015 to eradicate manual scavenging…however, minimal – if any – strides have been made during his ministry because of lax enforcement of existing laws, loopholes in regulations and exploitation by contractors. Meanwhile, caste-based barriers make sanitation work a difficult, if not impossible, trap to escape from”
“[The Prime Minister] has done nothing for us,” asserted Bezwada Wilson, who heads the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a national union of sanitation workers. He launched a hashtag – #StopKillingUs. This was a sentiment shared even by one of the workers whom Modi met in February. Grateful for the act, he nonetheless noted “there is no difference in our lives. We were doing this cleaning work before too, we continue to do it.”
Modi pledged in 2015 to eradicate manual scavenging (it is worth noting his past description of the practice as an “internal spiritual activity” for Dalits). However, minimal – if any – strides have been made during his ministry because of lax enforcement of existing laws, loopholes in regulations and exploitation by contractors. Meanwhile, caste-based barriers make sanitation work a difficult, if not impossible, trap to escape from.
It is understandable then that securing visibility for their plight as India heads to the polls has been a priority among sanitation workers. To this end, the SKA launched their own manifesto ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. The manifesto is a charter of demands prioritising an end to manual scavenging and for the government to make strides towards ensuring the rehabilitation, rights and dignity of safai karamcharis.
“Fundamentally, the manifesto seeks liberation of the caste-based servitude sanitation work and manual scavenging represent”
Ensuring access to dignified employment and education, healthcare, sanitation and water services are among the demands of the charter. This would be facilitated by a Right to Life card for safai karamcharis and their dependents to avail these services and entitlements. The SKA also calls on the Indian Parliament to set up a special session, examining manual scavenging deaths and monitor efforts to rehabilitate sanitation workers. A government white paper on the status of safai karamcharis, deaths among the community and efforts to stop them is also called for.
Fundamentally, the manifesto seeks liberation of the caste-based servitude sanitation work and manual scavenging represent. “We demand to release every last child, woman and man from manual scavenging in a time bound manner,” Wilson called in a tweet.
Deepthi Sukumar, national convenor of the SKA, said “even after seeing our plight, all the governments, both Centre and state, chose to remain silent, and especially the Prime Minister. As long as we are being forced into manual scavenging, to risk our lives for this dangerous occupation, just because of our castes, this country cannot be considered a democracy.”
“This is the biggest moment in our history,” Wilson declared at the manifesto’s launch. “This is the first time, we, the manual scavengers, are releasing our manifesto. We do not want a government that does not care about us. These are our demands, and we are not requesting the people in power to meet them, we are ordering them.”