Strictly apply laws that ban manual scavenging

Recently two sanitation workers and also a contractor who had employed them died of suffocation in a manhole at Panvel. The Panvel incident took place at Kalundre Village in the month of March. The manual scavengers were engaged in cleaning a sewage line when they apparently suffered suffocation due to poisonous gases inside a manhole. All the manual scavengers who have dead till date were not provided with the protective gear. And till now the municipal corporations, state government and the central government are not taking any steps to help these sanitation workers.

Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for the manual removal of untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines by hand with buckets and shovels. It has been officially prohibited by law in 1993 due to it being regarded as a caste-based, dehumanizing practice (if not done in a safe manner). It involves moving the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which the workers carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometers away. The workers, called scavengers (or more appropriately “sanitation workers”), rarely have any personal protective equipment. Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation, with the vast majority of workers involved being women.

The employment of manual scavengers to empty a certain type of dry toilet that requires manual daily emptying was prohibited in India in 1993. The law was extended and clarified to include insanitary latrines, ditches and pits in 2013.

According to Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. The 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India. The state of Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.

 “Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

The United Nations human rights chief welcomed in 2013 the movement in India to eradicate manual scavenging. After six states passed resolutions requesting the Central Government to frame a law, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narasimha Rao government, was passed by Parliament in 1993. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000. No convictions were obtained under the law during the 20 years it was in force.

The broad objectives of the act are to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and to maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. The question is why are these laws not being implemented?

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