Why are so many sanitation workers deaths uncounted?

Source: Indian Express

Relevance: To understand the issues surrounding the ecosystem handling the manual scavengers.

Uncounted deaths of Sanitation workers

There have been over a million uncounted deaths in the last 50 years in India. Many of which occurred during the Corona pandemic.

This can be understood from the following data. In the last 5 years:

  • Over than 9k people, who are employed in the dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging and cleaning insanitary latrines, have died from multiple chronic conditions.
  • Over 600 have died in the hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
  • It is estimated that there are over 18-20 % unreported cases in both these categories.
What should the government do?

Till now, the government has reached only 5% of the total population of manual scavengers & 20% of the total area of India in its identification-related surveys. So:

  • Government should focus on expanding the categories of manual scavengers like dry latrine workers, daily sweepers, hospital sanitation workers, bone scavengers etc
  • It should properly estimate the death of sanitation workers of all categories
  • It should understand the lapses that have occurred in the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual scavengers and Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act.

When it comes to manual scavengers, we need to quickly provide estimates for:

  • Number of deaths of sanitation workers
  • Lapses in implementation of Manual scavenger Act.
Challenges in identification of manual scavengers
  • Despite numerous appeals, municipal authorities and panchayats have failed to properly identify them.
  • District magistrates and appointed inspectors have also failed to comply with the act.
  • When sanitation workers insist on identification, they are often threatened.
  • This is how states claim that they have no manual scavengers employed.
  • Even seizure of records would not yield much, as the workers are not on record.
Challenges in implementation of the Act
  • Non-compliance is hardly ever penalized
  • Compensation and promises of one-time case assistance are only provided in around 40 per cent of “all recorded cases”.
  • The government is using a loophole in the Manual Scavenging Act 2013 – “that when a person is employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices using protective gears then the person will not be deemed as a manual scavenger”, the question remains about what these devices are and are they actually provided.
  • Due to a lack of data, it is difficult to identify the death of manual scavengers owing to an occupational hazard. This makes it difficult to provide relief to family members of the deceased.

Way forward

  • There is an urgent need to work on the identification of manual scavengers if we are to truly benefit from the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act.

Terms to know:

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