Even as the country gears up to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the Supreme Court has turned the spotlight on what the Father of the Nation called ‘a blot on humanity’ — untouchability. The apex court lamented that caste discrimination existed even over 70 years after Independence, exemplified by the inhuman and life-endangering practices of manual scavenging and manhole cleaning. ‘Will any of you shake hands with them (manual scavengers)?’ the Bench asked, pulling up the government for not providing protective gear like masks and oxygen cylinders to people involved in declogging sewers.
According to a conservative estimate by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, at least 50 persons died cleaning sewers in the first half of 2019. The actual nationwide toll would be far higher as the ‘official’ figure pertains to only eight states — Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — and underreporting of the cases is widely prevalent. In the West, besides in Asian nations like Japan and Malaysia, mechanical and automated systems are being used to clean sewers, minimising or entirely doing away with the need to send workers inside the ‘gas chambers’. Owing to a casteist mindset and the availability of cheap labour, the authorities in India conveniently avoid buying state-of-the-art equipment required for the purpose. Whatever technology is in place is not put to optimum use. As per an inventory prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board in 2015, about one-third of the sewage treatment plants in the country were found to be non-functional or under construction.
October 2 will also mark five years of the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government’s grand cleanliness mission. The fact that manual scavenging is alive and kicking flies in the face of the tall claims about cleaning up India. A befitting tribute to Gandhi would be to ensure safe working conditions for the sewermen and empower them with sophisticated equipment to do their job professionally — with their dignity intact. Heads must roll for negligence that imperils the lives of these workers.