The past few years can be easily referred to as the ‘golden period’ for sanitation in India. It all started with a dream of a clean India. An India free of open defecation. What truly set apart this sanitation journey was that it was a people’s movement- a goal that became every citizen’s priority. The Swachh Bharat Mission brought about a massive behavioral change in people so much so that they collectively made concerted efforts in making India an open defecation free nation.
However, while we have made incredible strides in increasing the sanitation coverage of the country, the same cannot be said about the implementation of safe sanitation work. Unfortunately, unsafe sanitation work, which includes manual and hazardous cleaning of drains, sewer lines and septic tanks, is, till today, a harsh reality in our country. Perilous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is an age-old practice and is deeply rooted in India’s caste system, which assigns such duties to those belonging to the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities. In addition to facing discrimination, sometimes by their own community, these sanitation workers are prone to health risks that can prove fatal while entering the sewers and septic tanks without adequate protective gear. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, 376 people have lost their lives between 2015 and 2019 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
The fact that our sanitation workers, rightly hailed as warriors, work in such unsafe and hazardous conditions are not only brutal but also criminal. This in itself is tarnishing our image as a nation of being a success story in sanitation. The government in its capacity has brought in several technological and policy changes to put an end to this kind of sanitation work. In fact, the practice of hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks is a punishable offence as per Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Recently, the government also launched the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge in 246 cities which aims to ensure that no life of any sanitation worker is ever lost again owing to ‘hazardous cleaning’. While measures like these are in place, the battle cannot be won unless the citizens take active participation.
It will be worthwhile to distinguish the terms ‘manual scavenging’ and ‘hazardous cleaning’. More often than not, they are used interchangeably. While manual scavenging involves manually cleaning and handling human excreta in an insanitary latrine or an open pit, hazardous cleaning is when sanitation workers manually enter sewers and septic tanks without any protective gear. The cleaning of sewer lines and septic tanks is an essential activity to ensure sustainable sanitation but when it is done without any protective equipment and observance of safety procedures that is when it is hazardous.
As responsible citizens, it becomes our duty to discourage and make sure that we do not employ unauthorized workers to get into septic tanks and sewers to clear blockages. Today, there are many advanced mechanical solutions available and we should appoint these services. In places where it is not possible due to space constraints, it is our responsibility to ensure that the workers are equipped with proper safety gear before entering the tanks. The other crucial aspect is awareness. We need to ensure that our neighbors, friends or family members also put a stop to this practice and educate them on the need of eliminating wrongful practices related to sanitation. The government has set up a helpline number (14420) which can be used to register complaints in case one witnesses any hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and call an authorized Safaimitra to get the septic tanks and sewer lines cleaned.
Clearly, despite the extreme hazards and risks and various initiatives undertaken by the government, men and women are still being sent to clean septic tanks and sewers which is leading to deaths – some are reported but most unreported. As citizens of this country, we not only have to take complete responsibility for keeping our cities and country clean but also partake in the elimination of the practice of hazardous cleaning- something that can give these sanitation workers a life of dignity. The time has come for us to be sensitive towards this issue and equally shoulder the responsibility with the government to save the lives of our ‘Safaimitras’.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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