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Death in the sewers: Manual scavenging continues to kill

A Dalit man working as a manual scavenger. Image credit: Dalit Network ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
In the first six months of 2019, at least fifty people died because of manual scavenging – in just eight states. 

This is according to data collected from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) from Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh. The fatalities offer a snapshot of a much broader national issue. India is home to a 770,000-strong workforce of sanitation workers who clean India’s sewers by hand.

With fifty fatalities reported from just eight states, the death toll so far this year is virtually certain to be much higher. Even the figures from the eight states cited by the NCSK are likely to understate the full issue. According to The Indian Express, many states underreport the full death toll due to manual scavenging including the eight states cited above. As such, arriving at an approximation of fatalities anywhere close to accuracy will be nigh on impossible. Since 1993, the Commission estimates 813 deaths due to manual scavenging. On the other hand, some estimates put the death toll from manual scavenging at 1,800 in the last decade alone. 

A protest against manual scavenging held in Chennai. Image credit: By ADHIYAMAAN [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons
Manual scavenging has been illegal in India since 1993, but continues to be widespread. This puts workers at a great deal of risk, not least because they often descend into sewers lacking proper protective equipment such as breathing equipment. Once in the sewers, workers are vulnerable to asphyxiating to death on toxic gases; developing life-threatening infections from open wounds owing to the septic environment; or sustaining fatal injuries because of the hazards. Many cases have also been reported of people losing their lives after falling down open manholes. 

The environment in which manual scavenging proliferates is plain to see. India properly treats just forty percent of its faecal waste. Much of the country’s sanitation waste ends up in sewers, septic tanks, and bucket latrines which sanitation workers are left to clean. This has been one of the major failings of the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). Sanitation workers are a demographic who noticeably have enjoyed little to no benefit from the Centre’s flagship initiative. 

Earlier this year, sanitation workers protested for their rights and dignity ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Many criticised Prime Minister Modi for failing to make good on his earlier promise of ending manual scavenging. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a sanitation workers’ union, even released its own manifesto, demanding the “release [of] every last child, woman and man from manual scavenging in a time bound manner.” For many sanitation workers, it is only their only prospect of employment, with those of the Dalit caste virtually exclusively making up the sanitation workforce owing to few opportunities afforded them for economic advancement. 

The Modi government was eventually re-elected in the polls; some credited development-related initiatives for the victory. However, as we have been reminded, the path to a ‘Clean India’ is paved with bodies. In making India a cleaner nation, it is incumbent upon officials to ensure that the right to life, dignity, and safe livelihood is afforded to those who make this ambition possible. 

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