The death a 25-year-old man in a septic tank on mall premises in Chennai shows that the practice of using human beings to clean sewers and septic tanks in the state continues unabated. Manual scavenging is illegal under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act passed in 1993 was revised in 2013. The revision not only sought to eradicate manual scavenging, but rehabilitate families dependent on manual scavenging as profession.
Manual scavenging continues to claim lives despite Madras HC's strictures. Last year, three persons were asphyxiated while cleaning the septic tank at a private luxury resort near Sriperumbudur. In 2017, the Madras high court, while holding that manual scavenging was prima facie a contravention of human rights and the right to live with dignity as per the Constitution, directed the Central and the state governments to ensure that there was no engagement of manual scavengers.
Also, in June 2018, the Madras high court directed the state government to pay 8% interest on compensation to heirs of manual scavengers who had died in harness since 1993, calculating it from October 1, 2014, till the date they received the money.
Meanwhile, a ministry of social justice and empowerment report in July said Tamil Nadu had recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging over the last five years. Tamil Nadu had the highest number of sewer deaths with 144 cases, followed by Karnataka, UP and Gujarat.
It may be recalled that Divya Bharathi who portrayed the poor working conditions of manual scavengers and failure of law enforcers, besides the caste angle, in her documentary Kakkoos. received several threat calls in 2017.
Several private establishments and apartment complexes who employ people to clean their septic tanks and sewers are not even aware that the practice is banned. Besides, majority go for human beings and not pumps to clean their tanks as the former is cheaper. With protective gear not made mandatory, men continue to lose lives inside septic tanks.
It is time the state government and the Centre created awareness among people on the legal repercussion of this inhuman practice and also spread the message about the existing law among men entering sewers. Violators of law must not be spared. The state government must also ensure that Bandicoot, a semi-automatic robot, that cleans manholes in Kumbakonam, is used in all districts so that men need not have to enter sewers anymore....