Manual Scavenging in Delhi: No Records, But Plenty of Deaths

The 2015 National Crime Records Bureau data states that there has been no deaths caused due to manual scavenging.

5 min read
The government does not have a database to record the increasing toll of manual scavenger deaths.

On 20 August 2017, a Sunday, Rishi Pal, who was employed with the Lok Nayak hospital as a sanitation worker in Delhi, was asked to help with cleaning the sewer inside the hospital. This was not unusual for the  45-year-old as he was often called in by Prem Sagar, who works as a storekeeper in the hospital, to help with cleaning the sewers.

With three teenagers to support, Pal did not mind taking up such jobs .

But that fateful Sunday, within minutes of entering the sewer without any protective gear, Pal fell unconscious and was soon declared dead.


Pal's death was a result of violation of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, passed by the parliament four years ago.

The sanitation worker’s death marked the tenth such case in the national capital in the 35-day gap between 15 July and 20 August. But there is no official data to record such deaths. Neither the Centre nor the Delhi government has a database to record the increasing number of of sanitation workers’ deaths.

The 2015 National Crime Records Bureau data states that there has been no deaths caused due to manual scavenging. None. Zero. Zilch.

Ground Reality Different from 2015 Data

But the reality on the ground is far different.

Magsaysay Award winner and Safai Karamchari Andolan convenor Bezwada Wilson has been fighting for the last two decades to not let these deaths remain forgotten.

According to him, at least 90 workers have died from manual scavenging in the last nine months of 2017. This makes it an average of 10 every month, across the country. Delhi, he says, is one of the worst affected.

Manual Scavenging in Delhi: No Records, But Plenty of Deaths

Turning A Blind Eye to Safety Gear

It’s not just a database that is missing.

There is no record of workers being hired for cleaning sewers by contractors. There is no record of them engaging in such work without safety gear and no record of such a practice existing.

Take the case of brothers Jahangir (24) and Izaz (22).

They were cleaning a sewer inside Aggarwal Funcity Mall in Vishwas Nagar, Shahdara on 12 August, along with their 50-year-old father Yusuf. Suddenly, their father realised that his sons were not responding to his calls, and rang the alarm. But it was too late. They died on the spot. When their bodies were drawn out of the drain, it was evident that they were not wearing any protection gear – not even basic gloves.

Is the government committing a crime? Are they paying to hire sanitation workers for manual scavenging when it is clearly against the law?

Rajender Mewati, Sanitation Workers' Union Leader in New Delhi, points out that while the contractors, both public and private, "claims" to have procured machinery, human intervention was required to clean the city's drains, especially the smaller ones.

When asked, a private contractor on condition of anonymity, said the following:

Manual Scavenging in Delhi: No Records, But Plenty of Deaths
(Photo: The Quint)

Fixing Accountability Within Delhi

In another incident on 7 August, in the posh South Delhi's Lajpat Nagar, three men were asphyxiated while cleaning a septic tank. Ironically, the incident happened right opposite to the MCD building. All of them had gone in one after the other.

An hour passed and no one responded, resulting in the “officials” sending in a fourth person to rescue them. When there was no response from him as well, some men tied a rope around his body and pulled him out. The fourth man was unconscious. But the other three were dead.

According to a report, there has been no progress on the investigation. The contractor is reportedly absconding, so is the contractor who hired Rishi Pal to clean the sewer.

So then, who does one pin the responsibility on? Well, in Delhi, that is as murky as the sewers.

Although the Delhi Jal Board is often dragged into deaths related to manual scavenging, it’s not the only authority that is responsible for sewer cleaning. Delhi's drainage system is maintained by the Public Works Department and Department of Irrigation and Flood Control along with the Jal Board.

The drains in smaller colonies come under the Delhi Jal Board, the drains on the main roads and sewer systems inside government premises are maintained by the Public Works Department, and the larger almost canal-sized drains are maintained by the Delhi government’s Department of Irrigation and Flood Control. But these government agencies do not employ any sanitation worker, but outsource them to contractors.

Delhi Police officials told that the government agencies in these two cases tried to "absolve themselves of responsibility claiming they had no knowledge of how contractors were getting the cleaning work done".


Who Will Initiate the Database? Centre Vs Delhi Govt

Following the ten deaths in 35 days in Delhi, the blame game began and high-level probes were launched in multitude. But they failed to address an issue that mattered – of compiling a database, that will open a Pandora's box of questions about such deaths.

Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot pulled up the Delhi government for "not providing correct information" about manual scavenging deaths.

The minister admitted that lack of data on manual scavengers resulted in gaps in the implementation of the law, but put the onus on the state governments.

The Centre also asked for the expansion of the definition of manual scavenger and to include those who clean human waste from open drains and along the railway lines.

Speaking to Hindustan Times, the minister said:

Manual Scavenging in Delhi: No Records, But Plenty of Deaths
(Photo: The Quint)

He put the blame on the Delhi state government by saying that they have "not even responded" to the Centre's questions regarding action taken after the death of the sanitation workers. The Centre has distanced itself from the database. But is it justified?


Following the meeting held between the national and state Commissions with Safai Karamcharis recently, the Centre said that all states have been directed to take precautions that have been mandated in the 2013 Act. It also asked them to ensure total mechanisation of cleaning septic tanks and sewers.

But mechanisation, authorities agree, is not an overnight process. Between this long wait for a database, and cry for safety gear and long-term mechanisation, how many more lives are going to be lost? It is a question that authorities pretend they don’t have to answer.

Like the issue of manual scavenging itself.

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