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Thursday, August 18, 2022
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“Even the people feel disgust for us. To such an extent that they stand far from us when even giving us water to drink” — Sanitation workers who clean septic tanks

If the government does not accept our demands, then after 75 days there will be a large agitation in the capital – Bezwada Wilson.

Delhi — The nation is celebrating “Amrit Mahotsav” to commemorate 75 years of independence of the country, but for one community, there has been no change in their lives even after so many years of independence. They are the people who do“manual scavenging”(Maila Dhona), who are dying every day while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. But neither the government nor the administration is giving attention to this matter. Every three days, a sanitation worker dies from the toxic gases released during sewer cleaning. To demand an end to such, ever-increasing, incidents, the “Safai Karamchari Andolan” organization is commemorating 75 years of independence by running a protest campaign“Action 2022 – Stop killing us in sewers-septic tanks” for 75 days across many states in the country. Which, Safai Karamcharis in 21 states are participating in the movement. As well as raising public awareness, these people are striving to get their message across to the government.

Government must hear our demands

The protest campaign started in Delhi, the capital of the country. For almost five days, peaceful demonstrations took place in different parts of the capital city. In which many people took part. The Mooknayak talked to the campaign director and national president of SafaiKaramchariAndolan, Bezwada Wilson. He said that our demand to the government is that, just like the government is introducing mechanization in other types of work, similarly, the work of manual scavenging should become mechanized. So that no person dies from the toxic gases in the septic tanks.

Bezwada Wilson then said that the aim of the 75-day-long agitation is to give one clear message from our side to the government – stop killing the people from this one community. “If the government does not listen to our demand in these 75 days, then our organization will hold a large demonstration in the capital city of the country. Through this, more and more people will be made aware of this matter.” He further tells us that whenever a sanitation worker dies, he himself writes a letter to the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office], Ministry of Home Affairs, and the National Human Rights Commission, but he never gets a response to his letter.

The last day’s demonstration in Delhi held at Tilak Marg

Many people in Delhi took part in this campaign, which was held in the different parts of the city over about five days. The last day’s demonstration was due to happen near India Gate. But because the police did not give them permission to do so, it went ahead on Tilak Marg. In which, people from different parts of the city registered their protest. One of them was Deepti Sukumar, vice-president of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. Her point is that, on the one hand, the government is celebrating the joys of 75 years of independence. They are buying rockets and fighter jets. What a shame it is that though [on the other hand], in all these years, they have failed to prevent the deaths among the septic tank cleaners. Sanitation workers continue to die.

Along with Deepti, many other women had come there holding clipboards. Among them were some women whose family members had done manual scavenging in the past. There were also some men who even today are associated with this work. Dilbagh is one of them. He still does this work today. He says, “It is a very filthy job. Even the people feel disgusted [ghṛṇā] for us. To such an extent that they stand far from us when even giving us water to drink. Now my children are refusing to do this work. Because they are being educated in school, they are aware of all these things, and so they even tell me to stop doing this work as well.”

Laws have been passed but still, the deaths have not stopped

Even today in India, most of the work is carried out according to the Varna [caste] system. As a result, it is the people of the Dalit community who are still expected to carry out the work of sweeping roads, cleaning drains, cleaning septic tanks, etc. In 1993, the Parliament of India passed “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act” against this abusive practice. After this law was passed, the practice of carrying human excreta on the head was stopped. However, while this practice of clearing excreta from dry latrines was discontinued, the cleaning of septic tanks could not be mechanized to save the workers’ lives.

Every other day there is news of the death of a sanitation worker while cleaning a septic tank. The Safai Karamcharis are not provided with any kind of safety gear, such as gloves, body suits, shoes, masks to avoid inhaling toxic gases, or even the constant flow of fresh air. Even after so much has happened, these Safai Karamcharis are not even given permanent jobs. After the death of these contract workers, no one even takes responsibility for their families.

Most deaths occurred in Tamil Nadu

Despite the law passed in 1993, there is still no sign of stoppage of the deaths in septic tanks. This week itself, two people died while cleaning a septic tank in Delhi’s Moolchand area. Whereas the union government is claiming that no one has died due to manual scavenging, on August 4, 2021, the government informed both houses of parliament that since 1993, 941 people have died while cleaning sewers, and the highest number of these deaths occurred in the state of Tamil Nadu. The tragedy of the matter is that on one hand, we are raising slogans of the “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan”, but on the other hand, we are killing people in septic tanks.

[Story Translated By Lotika Singha]

यहां हिन्दी में भी पढ़ें: “हमसे तो लोग भी घृणा करते हैं। यहां तक की हमें पीने के लिए पानी भी दूर से देते हैं” — सेप्टिक टैंक की सफाई करने वाले सफाई कर्मचारियों का दर्द

Poonam Masih
Poonam Masih
Poonam Masih, Journalist The Mooknayak

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