Listen to the full CPR podcast, ThoughtSpace (above) featuring Senior Fellow, Shubhagato Dasgupta and Fellow, Arkaja Singh, talking about deaths due to manual scavenging.
Manual scavenging has emerged as one of the biggest challenges of sanitation in India. In very simple terms, manual scavenging is work that involves directly handling raw or partly treated human excreta. Historically, this practice was associated with ‘dry latrines’, in which fresh excreta is lifted manually, and on a daily basis.
We have not as yet completely eradicated dry latrines, even though it has been banned since 1993, but in the meantime, many newer forms of sanitation infrastructure have proliferated, which also involve unsafe sanitation work and often manual scavenging. This includes the work of cleaning septic tanks, latrine pits, drains and sewerage systems, and also in cleaning railway tracks and other open defecation spots where sanitation workers directly interface with faecal matter. All of this work is prohibited under the manual scavenging law, as we have pointed out in our policy brief Manual Cleaning of Sewers and Septic Tanks. This work as it is performed currently, is also degrading and humiliating, and has a long association with caste discrimination.
We also now have an understanding of manual scavenging as extremely hazardous work that kills its workers. According to a recent estimate by the National Commission of Safai Karamcharis, 123 people have died in cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1 Jan 2017, which adds up to one death in every five days. Official numbers estimate that approximately 53,000 people are engaged in manual scavenging work, but other estimates, such as from Dalberg, suggest that as many as 5 million people are engaged in some form of manual scavenging work. It is also worth pointing out here that unsafe sanitation work and manual scavenging is almost an everyday practice – safety norms and protocols are routinely flouted in cleaning and maintenance services – and this includes sanitation infrastructure in the most upmarket hotels, commercial complexes and gated communities, in publicly managed sewerage systems, and in private septic tanks, which proliferate across urban India.
Meanwhile there are severe inadequacies in our legal and institutional response, which need urgent attention. In our podcast, we try to disentangle some of the issues around unsafe sanitation infrastructure and the reasons why our current infrastructure cleaning and management practices are killing people. These deaths are largely on account of poisonous gases that accumulate in closed septic tanks, sewer lines and in sewerage treatment facilities. Much of this work could be significantly mechanised: emptying work in septic tanks should be carried out by vacuum tankers, and limited problem-solving human interventions in sewerage systems should be carried out by highly trained people, following protocols to ensure that their intervention is limited and made entirely safe.
Faecal Sludge Management
In our work on sanitation in non-sewered areas, we emphasise that Faecal Sludge Management (FSM) interventions are needed to squarely address the challenge of establishing safe and hygienic systems for management of our sanitation infrastructure. At the same time, we need deep and systematic reform in the management of sewerage systems, to ensure that no worker is made to do dangerous sanitation work. Our current work on sanitation in CPR, under the Scaling City Institutions for India project (SCIFI) is focused on FSM, which has the potential to address the sanitation needs of 60% of our urban population and an even larger and growing proportion of the population in non-urban areas, who currently live in non-sewered areas and rely on septic tanks for their sanitation needs. For safe and improved FSM services however, states and cities implementing FSM need to articulate and implement a coherent FSM plan that emphasises the elimination of manual scavenging and dangerous sanitation work as a central objective. And on our part, we need to continuously engage with the issue, understand the reasons for its persistence, and hold our governments, our residents’ associations and ourselves to account for its complete eradication.