How many manual scavengers need to die, Karnataka?

N Jayaram
N JayaramApr 21, 2016 | 09:54

How many manual scavengers need to die, Karnataka?

After four people died in a manhole in Doddaballapur town in Karnataka on April 3, there was a modicum of reporting in the local and state media. But there has been precious little action.

They were the last four of as many as 46 manual scavengers’ deaths recorded in the state since April 2008, nine of them so far in 2016, the predominant majority of the deceased being Dalits.

Also, the operative word is "recorded": far too many people forced to plunge into the sewers, sometimes to die there or to develop debilitating skin diseases or die young thanks to alcoholism (as they find it unbearable to get down manholes without dulling the senses) do so without anyone knowing.

Manual scavengers are almost entirely from Dalit castes.

Even the recorded ones get little mention in the media – local, regional or national. Because Savarna Hindu-born journalists and media managers get to decide what is or is not "news". And the deaths of the four people in Doddaballapur, 36 kilometres from Bangalore has also been quickly forgotten by the media.

Members of the Safai Karmachari Kaval Samithi (watchdog committee), Alternative Law Forum, People’s Democratic Forum and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and associated civil society organisations in Bangalore have been trying over the past weeks to draw the attention of the authorities to the government’s comprehensive failure in preventing the deaths of people who are almost entirely from the Dalit caste. (Disclosure: this writer is a member of the PUCL’s Bangalore unit.)

They have been pointing out that the deaths resulted from the authorities’ failure to implement The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

The facts of the Doddaballapur tragedy are that two people named Muniswamy and Jagannatha, engaged by a contractor, died after ingesting methane gas while cleaning a manhole. Two passersby named Madhu and Muniraju (23) who tried to go to their rescue, also asphyxiated to death. Their bodies were extricated after several hours of efforts by fire service members after digging a deep hole alongside the manhole.

"No government official was present when the contract workers went down into the pit for repair work," a fact-finding report of activists from the civil society organisations in Bangalore noted. "The contractor overseeing the work had forced the workers to go down into the manhole without providing them with any safety equipment, even though such equipment was available with the municipal council, on the pretext that it was Sunday and the safety equipment was not available for hire. In fact, elementary safety measures, such as keeping the manhole lid open for the gases to come out, and providing safety gear, such as face masks, were not taken."

46 manual scavengers’ deaths have been recorded in Karnataka since April 2008.

The fact-finding team concluded that the deaths were "caused solely by the work of cleaning a blocked manhole, something a machine could have done and should be doing. The death of these sanitary workers and the two bravehearts who went to their rescue is a result of the state government's comprehensive failure in implementing the law."

"Institutional murder" was a term used after Rohith Vemula's suicide in Hyderabad earlier this year. The deaths of the manual scavengers can also be thus described, having been caused by the authorities’ abject failure to implement relevant laws.

The government has given Rs 10 lakh to each of the families of the four who died in Doddaballapur as a way of washing its hands of the tragedy. Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has ignored activists’ calls for him to take a personal interest in halting the recurring deaths of manual scavengers in the state.

The civil society organisations have demanded an inquiry into the municipal commissioner’s and chief engineer’s failure to fulfil statutory duties leading to the deaths, and for not taking immediate action against the contractor, who is yet to be apprehended.

They want a First Information Report (FIR) to be registered against the deputy commissioner and other officials and all the accused arrested in addition to action against the local police officials for not applying appropriate sections of the law.

The civil society organisations also demanded that Rs 25 lakh be paid to each of the four victims’ families, the practice of manual scavenging be immediately done away with and a public awareness programme be undertaken.

In a country where the plight of the Dalits – including attacks on them by upper-caste landlords and rapes of Dalit women – rarely gets exposure, the last demand is particularly noteworthy. Manual scavengers are almost entirely from Dalit castes.

As several activists sarcastically remark, there is upwards of 90 per cent reservation for them in low-paying DDD jobs – dirty, dangerous and demeaning. The vocal anti-reservation crowd of Savarna Hindus has not bothered to question this monopoly of the Dalits in such employment. It is time they did.

Last updated: April 21, 2016 | 18:51
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