The death of three people due to suffocation while cleaning a sewer in an apartment complex in Bengaluru recently underscores yet again the fact that manual scavenging is not only a degrading practice but it is also deadly. Around 68 people have died in the last 12 years while cleaning sewage pipes and toilets in Karnataka alone; this does not include the hundreds who must have died due to related illnesses. Yet, authorities are not doing enough to stop manual scavenging. The government has offered the victims' kin monetary compensation. However, this is not the end of the matter. The government's responsibility does not end with promising or doling out money to victims. It must ensure that stern action is taken against the BWSSB engineers, the apartment complex's management as well as the contractors. Importantly, it must take robust steps to end this inhuman practice and dismantle the infrastructure and oppressive belief systems that allow it to survive. Strong laws prohibiting the practice of manual scavenging, the construction of dry latrines, etc., were enacted in 1993 and 2013. The Supreme Court has repeatedly directed state governments to take steps to monitor the implementation of these laws. Yet, the practice continues. Karnataka has the shameful distinction of standing fifth in the country and first in southern India with regard to the number of people engaged in manual scavenging.
Governments at every level are complicit in the perpetuation of manual scavenging. The central government's slashing of the annual budget for rehabilitation of workers from Rs 557 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 5 crore in 2017 indicates the low priority it accords the problem of manual scavenging. As for state and local governments, they deny that manual scavenging exists. It is this denial that is allowing the inhuman practice to continue. Refusing to acknowledge the magnitude of this problem obstructs meaningful rehabilitation of workers, too. Enacting laws forbidding manual scavenging is only the first step. These laws must be implemented. Construction of dry and insanitary latrines must be stopped and safe, scientific and mechanical methods to clean public toilets and sewers must be made mandatory. Workers should be given protective gloves and other gear to ensure that their health and safety are not endangered.
Manual scavenging can be eliminated only if we tackle the problem head on. This requires a change in our thinking. It requires us to rid ourselves of the belief that some people deserve or were born to clean up after us. There is no justification for keeping people trapped in demeaning jobs. Government and civil society, including priests, should initiate campaigns to rid society of this humiliating and deadly practice.