Is manual scavenging illegal in India? The answer is yes. Did it end cleanliness workers from entering the manhole to clean and face health hazards and death in many instances? The unfortunate answer is ‘no’.
Under the Manual Scavenging Act, 2013, the employment or engagement of people to manually clean drains, sewer tanks, septic tanks etc. is an offence punishable by imprisonment and fine. It also provides for the rehabilitation of people who are already into it.
Still, we come across painful news of sanitation workers losing their lives while cleaning sewer tanks. It forced one to conclude that the law can go only so far. If the effective alternative means are not brought in and popularised at the ground level, we will continue to see this inhuman condition where a sanitation worker is left with no choice but to enter the toxic sceptic tank.
Now a Practical Approach
Now the government has decided to make mechanisation mandatory in sewer cleaning. While the Ministry of Social Justice has decided to give money directly to workers to purchase cleaning machines, instead of giving money to contractors or municipalities, the Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry has thrown a challenge to all local bodies to achieve mechanisation.
The aim is to achieve complete mechanisation in manhole/septic tank cleaning throughout the nation before August 2021.
Delighted to launch Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge across 243 cities. Based on PM Modi's vision to place safety & dignity of sanitation workers at the core of Swachh Bharat, it aims to ensure that no life is ever lost while cleaning sewer or septic tanks. pic.twitter.com/oGsR5pFw4T
— Hardeep Singh Puri (@HardeepSPuri) November 19, 2020
MoHUA explained the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge while launching it as follows:
“The Challenge will focus extensively on creating citizen awareness on this critical issue along with infrastructure creation for mechanized cleaning and capacity building of workforce. Along with this, a dedicated helpline number has been set up to register complaints and provide real-time solutions on desludging or sewer overflow. The actual on-ground assessment of participating cities will be conducted in May 2021 by an independent agency and results of the same will be declared on August 15, 2021.”
“Cities will be awarded in three sub-categories – with population of more than 10 lakhs, 3-10 lakhs and upto 3 lakhs, with a total prize money of ₹52 crore to be given to winning cities across all categories.”
There are other measures accompanying this effort.
- MTNL will roll out a national 24X7 helpline number to report the violation in mechanisation.
- In official communication, the word manhole will be replaced by ‘machine-hole’.
- If human entry is necessitated in an unavoidable emergency situation, proper gear and oxygen tanks, etc., are to be provided.