Mediating Technology Hampering the Rights of the Sewage Worker

Samuel SathyaSeelan May 11, 2015

“It is clear that impure work was done by the slaves and that the impure work included scavenging.”

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

One of the most crucial social legislations passed in 2013 was “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013” (from now 2013 Act). This Act was enacted after the abysmal failure of - “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993”. This former legislation mainly focused on the prohibition of manual scavenging and did not consider the rights of the sewage workers. And hence, the Government felt the need to address the issue the previous law had categorically overlooked. However, the law itself comes with many limitations while addressing the issues of hazardous occupations like sewer work.

Limitation of the 2013 Act

The scope of the new law is very limited as only few sections (Sec.7, 9, 33 of the 2013 Act) are dedicated to sewage workers, and it barely addresses the progressive development of sewage workers. Their work is the most hazardous occupation which has serious threat to the life of an individual no matter whether s/he is provided with or without a protective gear. The tag ‘protective gears’ therefore in the act is an escape route for the Government to continue using these workers for hazardous works rather than releasing them from such life threatening occupations. Provisions like “protective gears” and “safety measures,” would only serve to continue the practice and also for the perpetrators to justify the ongoing practices. While Mr. A Raja, MP Rajya Sabha, during the passage of the new law, had expressed that “Manual scavenging cannot be justified with the provision of so called protective gear and safety measures”, it was the Minister of Social Justice who assured the house that the Government will come up with effective Rules to protect the sewage workers through specific rules for proper implementation of the law.Sec. (7) of 2013, Act stipulates that

“no person, local authority or any agency shall, from such date as the state government may notify, which shall not be later than one year from the date of commencement of this act, engage or employ, either directly or indirectly any person for hazardous cleaning of sewer or a septic tank.”

The new law also speaks about mechanization of the sewage work but the onus is on the States to implement it. However, whether the States are prepared to implement the law needs to be questioned. One of the RTI replies received from Bangalore Water Supply Board, stated that some of the protective gears and cleaning devices which are not even recommended in the 2013 Rules framed by the Union Government i.e. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013 (from now Rules 2013). Interestingly the initial information [Note: RTI was filed in major Water Supply and Sewage Boards in India and the final information’s yet to come] received on the RTI reply, clearly indicates that States are not seriously considering implementing the new law and are continuing the usual practice followed in the Past rather than mechanizing the whole work, which is part of the new law. The Supreme Court of India in its latest judgment in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors vs. Union of India and Ors on 27 March, 2014 said “Sewer deaths while entering sewer lines without safety gears to be made a crime even in emergency situations and for each such death, compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased”. What can be understood is that Supreme Court has categorically held that sewer occupation is unsafe, and the new law continues to allow workers to work with safety gears but what the Supreme Court has failed to observe that all form of entry into sewers with or without protective gears should have been prohibited but the court did not alter the new law and the existing provisions still continue.

If Government is speaking about complete mechanization then why do the workers need to enter the sewers using protective gears?

Generally, there is a failure to understand the ground realities. On an everyday basis sewage workers are engaged in hazardous occupation due to lack of facilities and failure on part of the State to implement the law. Many cities like Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Bengaluru have lakhs of manholes and the States are dependent on sewer workers to meet the demand of the metropolitan cities, who have very limited number of cleaning devices, inspite of the new law making provisions for “Complete mechanization”.

Rule Making

The 1993 Act enacted under the State list, delegated the State Governments to formulate Rules but only few states formulated the rules. . Keeping in view the failure of previous law, the 2013 law was enacted under the Concurrent List. This made specific provisions regarding the rule making procedures. The 2013 Act, has made special provisions to ensure that there is no delay in implementing the law. The 2013 Act, gave the power to the Centre to come out with Model Rules to guide the State Governments, if they fail to notify the Rules as per Sec. 36 of the 2013 Act. The model Rules framed by the Centre shall be deemed to come into effect till the State Governments notifies it in the state assembly. This provision was made to remove any kind of hindrance for effective implementation of the law. To recall, the assurance made by the Minister of Social Justice in the Parliament, the Rules make elaborate provisions concerning the sewage workers welfare under chapter two of the Rules 2013. Under the 2013 Act Sec.33 say’s “ It shall be the duty of every local authority and other agency to use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and other spaces within their control with a view to eliminating the need for manual handling of excreta in the process of their cleaning”. The Rules under the same chapter lists out 44 kinds of protective gears and safety devices and 14 cleaning devices under Rule 4 and 5 respectively. Rule 6 speaks about how the protective gears to be used and implemented by the employers and lists 27 safety precaution when a sewer worker enter the manholes using safety devices.

However, great the 2013 Act is in terms of protection of the workers rights, there are some serious lapses in the rules that need to be rectified.

  1. When we read Rule 6, it says “No person shall be allowed to clean a sewer manually, with the protective gear and safety devices under the rules” but with exception such as removal of concrete, damaged manhole door, inter-linking the newly laid sewer, removal of submersible pump sets, reconstruction of manholes. The Rules does not say anything about clearing of blockades etc. The rules are contradicting itself in various aspects. For example while it is clear that that sewer workers must not enter the manholes/sewers if there are any blockades etc., the rules allow workers to enter manholes “manually” for sewage cleaning with permission from the CEO of the local authority giving valid reasons for allowing such cleaning. This is contrary to the Principle Act which seeks complete abolition of sewage work without protective gears and inserting a clause which provides power to local authorities taking a ride over this and to further exploit worker’s rights. The Rule is further ridiculed by stating a worker can enter a sewer once the sewage is totally emptied. It must be understood that whether it is emptied or not presence of poisonous gases will be a serious threat to the workers. This clause violates the 2013 Act under Sec. 7. The workers are also provided with the medical assistance after any injury during the occupation. While this is a positive measure to protect the last sewer workers in the country, what it also entails is the potential continuation of the scavenging practices.
  2. The 2013 Act, puts the burden of procuring protective gears, cleaning devices and modern technologies on the local authorities who need to depend on the State Governments for financial assistance. The States will be overburdened and there is a possibility the States may not prioritize due to financial crunch etc. Therefore the Central Government must extend financial support in assisting the States in the process of mechanisation of Sewage work. Ministry of Urban Development, had initiated a process called “Scheme of Assistance for Mechanical Cleaning of Sewers and Septic Tanks”. It states that
    “The Ministry propose to include the mechanical cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and septage management as admissible components in the New Urban Development Mission (NUDM) which is being formulated by the Ministry”-Standing Committee on Urban Development-16th Lok Sabha- Ministry of Urban Development: Demand for Grants (2014-2015)
  3. As per my earlier study on the Sewage workers condition in Bengaluru, Karnataka it was evident that most workers received hardly any proper equipment’s that provide occupational safety. . It is hypothetical at this point on how l States would implement the Rules.
  4. The Rules very ambitiously made for effective implementation of the law, is not very effective in major cities like Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru etc. because they have more than a lakh manholes. If any problem arises it has to be addressed immediately and the implementers of the procedures laid down in the Rules are often the local authorities and little is taken care for the protection of the workers.The initial reports on an RTI shows that states none of the major cities like [Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi] have taken implementation seriously and token equipment’s have been given to the workers of which some of them are not even recommended in the 2013 Rules. Effective implementation needs time and investment to introduce new technologies, train the workers and the officials in order to familiarize the new methods and use of technology.
  5. My research has also shown [Dissertation-MSW 2010] the workers dissatisfaction as they believed that the use of protective gears was not helpful. They expressed that entering the manholes with the devices may not be easy. All these point to the immediate need for complete mechanisation of the sewage services.

Rehabilitation

Another lacuna in the 2013 act is in the rehabilitation component of the workers. As per the 2013 Act, rehabilitation is only for the Manual Scavengers and not for the Sewage workers. This is because the Sewage workers are not considered as manual scavengers under Sec. 2 (g) (b). Little is considered that often people who engage in the sewage occupations are also from the lowest caste. Since the law restricts itself to manual scavengers; the Sewage workers are kept out of the ambit of new law which is discriminatory. For instance if a sewage worker meets with an accident in the course of his employment, there is no provision of compensation for them under the new law.,However, Supreme Court of India in its latest judgment in Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors vs. Union of India and Ors mentioned that compensation of 10 lakhs to be paid for every sewer deaths which are not part of the new law. There have been many judgments in the earlier cases from various High Courts with orders and direction to pay compensation for Sewer workers in relation to accidents and deaths.

Road Ahead

The 2013 Act, did not stand true to its spirit, as it failed to completely abolish the engagement of sewage workers in hazardous occupations such as sewer cleaning. On the contrary, it allowed them to be employed in such tasks using ‘protective gear’. The use of ‘protective gear’ has become a mediating technology that allows the workers to continue the life threatening work. The people employed to undertake this occupation belong to the lowest strata of the community, and historically the act of manual scavenging is linked to various social issues such as untouchability which is largely prevalent in society till date. The people engaged in these hazardous occupations are referred to, by various terms in the new law, as manual scavengers, sewage workers or scavengers, who are required to work in railway stations and in urban localities where the problem relating to drainage is highly prevalent. This new law in itself defeats the purpose of Article 17 of Indian Constitution which provides for abolition of untouchability, and untouchability will exist in the society as long these people are engaged in such occupations. It may be right for the Government to formulate some concrete rules to follow with regard to Sewer workers. The law has created number of authorities to oversee the implementation of the new law such as Inspectors and Vigilant committees for each district, monitoring committees at the Centre and the States, including the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis. However, the effectiveness of these posts needs to be vigilantly viewed and should emphasise more on annihilation of manual scavenging. Since the law came into force just one year ago, we need to wait and watch the implementation of the law. Also the new law has failed to recognize the sewer work which is equally a degrading and most hazardous occupation. The Government must try to bring in suitable amendments to widen the definition of sewer workers so that they get the due share what they are now deprived off under the law.

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