India vows to end manual emptying of sewage tanks to prevent worker deaths

At least 400 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country since 2017

DELHI 14 January 2010 - A local man conducts his morning ablutions and toilet at the Najafgahr drain that empties into the Yamuna river  in Delhi, India. Every day India produces 38.2 billion litres of liquid effluent. There  is only the capacity to treat one third of that, meaning the remaining two thirds are released into the country's rivers, the sea or allowed to seep back into the ground to contaminate aquifers. India's Pollution Control Board released a report on sewage management this week showing off the shocking figures and state of the local waterways. pic Graham Crouch for The National.  For Foreign News Desk
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India has said it will launch a national programme to end the manual removal of human waste, in the latest bid to prevent the deaths of hundreds of sanitation workers.

People from groups considered to be “low-caste” are still routinely forced to manually remove excrement from septic tanks and sewers despite a highly publicised law introduced about a decade ago to end the “discriminatory practice”.

While presenting the annual budget on Wednesday, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the practice would end.

“All cities and towns will be enabled for 100 per cent mechanical desludging of septic tanks and sewers to transition from manhole to machine-hole mode,” Ms Sitharaman said.

She did not disclose the amount allocated for the campaign.

India’s largest cities have centralised sewage systems, but most do not work effectively, while many small towns often cannot afford the infrastructure.

As a result, tens of thousands of workers, mostly from a caste of Hindus called Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, are engaged in sanitation work.

Many of them forced to enter manholes without any protection to unclog the sewers, a dangerous activity that can cause death from breathing difficulties and toxic fumes.

The latest scheme is aimed at preventing such fatalities.

India’s Supreme Court outlawed the manual clearing of sewage in 2013, but the practice remains rampant.

The government informed the country's parliament in December that at least 400 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country since 2017.

At least four sanitation workers in Delhi and 17 in neighbouring Haryana were killed while cleaning sewers last year.

India’s Supreme Court in 2019 had expressed serious concerns over the deaths of the cleaners, noting that “nowhere [else] in the world are people sent to gas chambers to die.”

A year later, the federal government amended the Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 to make mechanical cleaning of sewers and septic tanks mandatory.

It also replaced the word “manhole” with “machine-hole” in official usage, and set up a 24-hour national helpline for people to report breaches.

But the lack of enforcement of the legislation, and exploitation of unskilled labourers, means the practice is still prevalent, among Dalits ― who have been involved in scavenging for centuries.

They are forced to work without any safety gear as many contractors do not want to spend on personal protective equipment or machines.

Updated: February 01, 2023, 2:35 PM