Manual scavenging in India

Dr. Arun Mitra
One cannot help but tremble at the very thought that even today human beings go down in the gutters full of garbage to clean them manually. During the process they get submerged in the waste, which we even hate to smell. It is not unlikely that deep in the sewer where hot dirty water and soiled waste is flowing, some of it enters into the mouth and stomach leading to serious health problems. As a result many of them fall prey to several diseases of skin, eyes, oral cavity, respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, nervous system and may develop even mental problems. In extreme situations they fall unconscious after inhaling poisonous gases which many a times proves fatal.
Sewer gas is a complex mixture of toxic and nontoxic gases produced and collected in sewage systems by the decomposition of organic household or industrial wastes. Typical sewer gases include hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, esters, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide causes irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. Other symptoms include nervousness, dizziness, nausea, headache and drowsiness. This gas smells like rotten eggs, even at extremely low concentrations. Inhalation of the combination of the two toxic gases hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide and the suffocating gas methane is can be fatal.
Government of India had notified Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and Rules 2013. The act recognises that working near or in a manhole inherits potential dangers which may result in serious accidents and in some extreme cases, loss of life as well. The common accidents include falls/slips, fire or explosion, oxygen depletion, gas poisoning, heat stress, drowning, asphyxiation arising from gas, fume, vapour and entrapment by free-flowing solids. Amongst these, dangerous gases are easily overlooked or neglected, leading to serious casualties. The health and safety of personnel can be safeguarded to a great extent by use of safety equipment and by taking precautions appropriate for each hazard condition.
It is ironical that despite latest scientific knowledge about the hazards involved in manual scavenging of sewers, this practice continues to exist. Central Public Health Environmental Engineering Organisation under the Ministry of Housing (CPHEEO) and Urban Affairs Govt. of India has set Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for cleaning of Sewers and Septic Tanks. There are several directions given in it.
These have to be followed before sending a person in the sewer, which is to be done in an extreme case, otherwise manual scavenging has to be avoided. The CPHEEO has given a list of 44 equipment required for the purpose. Some of these include Protective Suits, Head lights, Air blowers, emergency medical kits, Ambulance at the cleaning site and breathing apparatus. It is mandatory for the supervisor to explain the dangers involved in going down the sewer to the person and to obtain his written consent. It is important to check gas level beforehand and to give proper time for aeration of the sewer. In case the gas level is dangerous then air has to be blown in. The scavengers have to be trained personnel for the job and their medical examination has to be done to ensure that they are in good health.
It is ironical that despite reports of hazards, the number of deaths is not coming down. Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan says that as of now 1760 persons have died in the sewers. He contests the government’s data of only 666 deaths.
The issue that why till date we have not been able to check this practice, requires deep introspection. Even though the act was framed in 2013, the instructions are hardly followed. There is complete lack of monitoring system. Legal action against the defaulters is very weak. There is need to devise and follow proper monitoring and stringent punishment to the defaulters.
There is need for proper education of the workers engaged in cleaning work. Since most of them come from low education status, they have to be briefed about the health hazards. In the situation of grave unemployment such workers are likely to be exploited by the vested interests who have no care for the human beings. Even though the Hon’ble Supreme Court had passed an order of giving 10 lakh compensation to the effected family of the deceased, it is not easy for the family to get it. There is need to strengthen the collective efforts by the unions of the Safai Karmacharis in this regards. It is ironical that the authorities do not have exact data of how many people have died cleaning sewers or received compensation. (IPA)