Lucknow- In the shadow of India's bustling urban centers, a silent and dangerous crisis has persisted for far too long, hidden beneath the surface of our daily lives. A crisis that echoes with the neglected voices from the cesspool of the cities, crying for attention and justice. It is the perilous plight of sewage workers who risk their lives to ensure our cities remain clean, yet often face the gravest dangers themselves.
Amidst these dire circumstances, a movement has risen, poised to bring about change. Action 2023, a campaign initiated by the esteemed Magsaysay award winner and activist, Bezwada Wilson, is not just a call for awareness; it's a resounding demand for prevention of deaths and fair compensation for those who have lost their lives in the unforgiving depths of sewage tanks and septic systems.
This movement seeks to eradicate sewage and septic tank-related fatalities while demanding justice for the families who bear the burden of these tragic losses. It is a rallying cry for change, a call to stop killing those who labour in the dark depths to keep our cities running.
There have been numerous cases in which sewage workers have succumbed to suffocation inside manholes:
November 2018: Five people died while cleaning domestic sewage in Kalyan area of Mumbai, including two firemen who went down to rescue the three cleaners.
September 2018: Five men choked to death while cleaning a sewer in Moti Nagar Area of West Delhi.
May 4, 2019: Three laborers died while cleaning a septic tank in Nalasopara town in Palghar district in Maharashtra. The incident took place in Anand View Apartments in Nilemore locality. The age of the victims ranged between 25-30. One of them died after inhaling toxic gases, and the other two, who went inside in an attempt to save him, also could not escape the hazardous gases.
November 2019: A 35-year-old man died, and three others lost consciousness after they entered a sewer to clean it in northwest Delhi's Shakurpur area. The work was reportedly carried out by the contractors of PWD. The then PWD minister Satyendra Jain ordered an inquiry into the accident.
February 2020: A 24-year-old sanitation worker died, and another sustained injuries after inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning a sewer without any safety gear in the CBD ground in East Delhi. The contract was given by Delhi Development Authority.
September 2022: Rohith, a sewage worker, died while cleaning the sewage in Delhi. Ashok, a guard who had seen Rohith going down, also went down to help him but met the same fate as Rohith and died. Rohit's wife Pinky told The Mooknayak, "At around 2:30, Rohit was cleaning the sewer when there was a strong current of water, and he got bogged down." Most of the deaths that occur take place in the work carried out under a contractor.
The Mooknayak spoke to Kuldeep Kumar, a lawyer-cum-activist of the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch, which claims to have rescued more than 600 manual scavenging workers in Bundelkhand. He says, "The long list of deaths is despite the fact that The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits manual cleaning of toilet wastes, sewers, and septic tanks without safety gear and mechanized equipment. Both municipal employees and the casual workers employed by contractors hired by government agencies come under the purview of the act, but the contractors often throw caution to the wind and don't provide the equipment, apparently to maximize their profits."
Based on his experience while dealing with the deaths of sewage workers in Kanpur, he says, "The workers are often provided liquor so that they remain oblivious to the obnoxious stench produced inside." He added that most of the people who are indulging in these activities are people from the Scheduled Caste community and particularly from the Valmiki Community.
The dangerous gases found inside include hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, of which hydrogen sulphide and ammonia are considered to be the most toxic.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment informed the Rajya Sabha in July that deaths of 308 persons in sewers and septic tanks have been reported in the period between 2018 to 2022. Tamil Nadu reported the highest number of cases at 52, followed by 46 in Uttar Pradesh and 40 in Haryana.
The National Commission for Safai Karamacharis estimates that one person dies every five days in the country while cleaning sewers or septic tanks as per the 2019 data.
Action 2022 is a campaign initiated by the Magsaysay award winner activist Bezwada Wilson aiming to eradicate sewage and septic tank deaths while also demanding fair compensation for the families of the people who lose their lives while cleaning sewage tanks. The movement was launched in 2022 in New Delhi and has rolled over to 2023 in the form of Action 2023.
Speaking to The Mooknayak, Bezwada Wilson said, "We launched Action 2022 on May 11, 2022, because sewage and septic tank deaths had spiked in India. In Delhi, there were 3-4 deaths in Delhi, but despite that, the government did not take any action. We started in Delhi and sought permission from the Delhi Police Commissioner for the dharna. He stamped the request and approved it by issuing certain warnings, including the use of mics. But the local police stopped us from taking out the march, stating that it is not permission. They stopped us everywhere in Delhi University and Connaught Place. So we started the 'one day, one place campaign' in 2022, where the women and the family members of the people who have lost their lives in different cities come out and say 'Stop Killing Us.' So far, we have covered 19 states.
Wilson says that it is influencing the judiciary, civil societies, and even some state governments like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have started doing some mechanization, and the Bihar government invited us for the discussion, but the central government has not done anything.
Reacting to the recent Supreme Court ruling of increasing the compensation in case of deaths in manual scavenging to Rs 30 lakhs from Rs 10 lakhs earlier, he said, "We had made a demand in our memorandum for providing Rs 50 lakhs compensation, and the Supreme Court has ordered Rs 30 lakhs, but the compensation is only to provide some relief. Prevention of deaths is most important, but that has not happened for us."