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Does India lack the moral stamina to stop manual scavenging?

Does India lack the moral stamina to stop manual scavenging?

Dhamma Darshan


Dhamma Darshan Nigam

Dhamma DarshanWithin eight days, eleven Indian citizens have died in sewers and septic tanks. Five died in a septic tank in Jashpur district of Chhattisgarh1 on 16th September. On 14th September a 28 years old man died while cleaning a Delhi Jal Board2 sewer pit. And five died on 9th September 2018 in DLF Capital Greens residential complex in Moti Nagar, an affluent and posh colony in Delhi3. All the five who died were just 19-26 years old. On the same day, 9th September, a sanitary worker fell unconscious after inhaling poisonous gas, in Ludhiana4. Three such instances have been noted in Ludhiana5 within one month when sanitation workers fell sick while cleaning sewage lines manually. They all could have died in cleaning sewage lines, but escaped. Many more sanitation workers have been killed in cleaning sewage lines and septic tanks in the recent past in 2018 only: 5 in Odisha6 in September, 2, 6 and 2 respectively in Delhi7, Bihar8, and Karnataka9 in August, 3 in Loni, Ghaziabad10, and 3 again in Bihar11 in June, 2 again in Delhi12 and 2 in Hyderabad13 in May. I can go back in time and count many more deaths but that won’t bring some shame to the killers of these Indian citizens.

It is not hidden from any one (companies which take contract of maintaining sewage treatment plants or to clean sewage line, or government agencies which are giving these contracts, or citizens who read newspapers and/or watch news) that poisonous gas is formed in manholes/septic tanks/open drains and cleaning them manually can kill that person, and cleaning such places without safety gears comes under manual scavenging which is also an illegal and criminal activity. Whosoever makes sanitation workers go down an open drain/sewer/manhole/septic tank without safety precautions can be booked under ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ and also under ‘The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2018’ if the sanitation worker belongs to the Dalit community.

Just having laws won’t stop such deaths from happening. Why can’t central government take precautionary measures to at least stop such deaths? Why can’t different municipalities direct strict orders to contractors that if they don’t provide safety gears to sanitation workers their company will be banned? Why can’t news channels, newspapers and radio channels run a one line statement to appeal to its citizens to not to clean sewer lines and septic tanks manually, and whosoever is found guilty of making sanitation workers to clean sewage lines and septic tanks manually will be booked as per above said acts? But no media seems to be taking action like this as Kuffir, one of the founders of Round Table India, calls mainstream media as manustream media. This manustream media is high on caste. They will surely note these deaths as news reports, but won’t write or publish more opinion articles from Dalit/Bahujan perspective so that general people’s mindset could be de-casted slowly.

It seems like Justice, Liberty, Equality, Right to Life, Right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation enshrined in the constitution are not meant for Dalits and poor in this country, India. This one particular Dalit community, majorly known as Bhangi/Chuhra/Mehtar, is forced to earn a living from only sanitation related work. Recently on 6th September 2018, when I found 6-8 men (aged around 20-30 years) cleaning an open drain around 6 feet deep and 5 feet wide without any safely gear and two of them were down in the drain in which half of their body was immersed, I asked them why are they doing it manually. They said that all of Delhi’s open drains are cleaned like this (manually). One man named Bhure, who called himself their supervisor, said that there are 500 more men like this, and what they will do, if machines clean these drains. Bhure said that the contractor’s name is Ram Sharma. The youngest among them was very surprised when I told them that there are many dying because of what they are doing. There was a small smile on the faces of other guys when I said that their contractor can be jailed for making them clean this drain manually. This sarcastic small smile on their faces was saying that he can’t be jailed! When I asked them why can’t they do some other work, two of them replied, ‘Aur kya karen?’ (What else they can do?). Their expressions also said that they don’t get any other work to do to earn their living. They were cleaning this open drain at LIG flats of Loni Road, Shahdara, opposite Jyoti Nagar police station on 6th September 2018.

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Photo by Dhamma Darshan

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Photo by Dhamma Darshan

It is really a question about the intentions of the Indian government when it is continuously failing in stopping manual scavenging in the national capital itself and when people are also dying in cleaning sewers and septic tanks. The contract between government agencies and contractors who are making sanitation workers clean sewer/open drain clean manually should immediately be cancelled. These contractors should be jailed. And strict orders must be passed by Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and other channelizing agencies that at any cost, even in an emergency, workers should not be made to clean sewers manually. The Supreme Court Judgment of 2014 on manual scavenging also states this very clearly. There must be a proper inspection of contractors to check whether they have all the safety gears or not.

Manual scavenging in Delhi is still continuing, when contractors and government agencies are aware of manual scavenging being illegal and a criminal offence. Government agencies are giving contracts and contractors are openly making people do manual scavenging. Neither contractors nor government agencies have any guilt about making people do so. To commit such criminal offence and remain immune from being caught–there is surely some agreement between contractors and government agencies. Both parties must have some benefits to share through continuation of this practice. And continuation of this practice means people in the system who are making some people to do manual scavenging have died morally.

This agreement and shared benefit is nothing but economic profit which they get by employing cheap labour through this contractual system. And moreover, it is just not about any cheap labour because they are not making anybody do sanitation work. They are continuously asking only particular Dalit communities (e.g., Bhangi, Chuhra, Mehtar, Dom etc.) to do this work. That means this blend of contract system and cheap labour keeps the caste system alive too. This further stops these Dalit communities from developing in their lives. They remain backward in different spheres of life. And we need to understand one community’s backwardness is the nation’s backwardness, and one community’s disadvantageous position is the nation’s disadvantaged position.

Though we all live separate lives, we still remain connected with each other. As it is said, humans are social animals. We need to learn to speak for each other in both good and bad times. A nation is made when its people share each other’s sorrow and happiness. Malcolm X said that ‘If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything’. This is what would happen not to Indians, but to India, if people as earliest as possible don’t realize that not speaking against any human rights violation is not at all an option. Barring few, people in general are not talking about human rights violations, particularly on the issue of manual scavenging, and generally on other human right issues. Above all, the  present central government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, is building an atmosphere of fear, where it wants to curb all the voices of dissent. People in general have literally closed their eyes, ears and mouths on human rights of their fellow citizens. It looks like even if they understand what do human rights, citizens, constitution, and constitutionalism mean, they do not want to speak on it.

So these are such people who will fall for anything, sometime, somehow, but for sure. Their manuvadi ideology itself stands on inequality. They don’t see every human being as equal. Because of their ideology of inequality they have stopped thinking rationally and morally. Their socialization teaches them not to question wrong things prevalent in society. And as a result, they fail to see human right violations as human right violations. For them manual cleaning of open drains as someone’s job. They don’t see any harm in this. But, we need to see these deaths as a continuous atrocity on one particular Dalit caste and a human rights violation at large. And it’s also not like that these ‘Hindus’ are totally inhuman. They have humanity, but for their own caste persons. As Dr. Ambedkar said in Annihilation of Caste:

The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become castebound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes.

And from where does this kind of irrationality develop in these people? In the same text, Ambedkar notes that:

To put it in plain language, what the Hindus call Religion is really Law, or at best legalized class-ethics. Frankly, I refuse to call this code of ordinances as Religion. The first evil of such a code of ordinances, misrepresented to the people as Religion, is that it tends to deprive moral life of freedom and spontaneity, and to reduce it (for the conscientious, at any rate) to a more or less anxious and servile conformity to externally imposed rules. Under it, there is no loyalty to ideals; there is only conformity to commands.

 Aristotle said also that “Man is by nature a social animal”, that people are connected to each other and they need each other to survive. They can’t live in different compartments. That is why we need to follow inclusive/constructive ideologies that break different compartments, not divisive/destructive ones that make compartments. Only then will we be able to develop what Gopal Guru calls moral stamina to speak against irrationality and immorality and any kind of human rights violation. This will help in developing a mental attitude where we will learn to share each other’s sorrow and happiness, we will learn to have shame over ill practices prevalent in society and the moral stamina to counter it, and the same process would provide voices to victims.

In the same hope Safai Karmachari Andolan started a campaign on 18th September in Delhi and it is generating awareness among public that they can develop the moral stamina and mental attitude to question sewer deaths, and ask, why are they happening? Why is the government not doing anything to stop them? Why is manual scavenging still continuing even after being banned? Why and how is sanitation work imposed on one caste group among Dalits? We need to ask many more questions like this. This campaign is concluding at Jantar Mantar, Delhi on 25th September. Come and raise your voice against manual scavenging.

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Photo by Shefali






Dhamma Darshan Nigam is an active member of the ‘Safai Karamchari Andolan’ and a writer. He can be contacted at: