How Kejriwal is failing Delhi’s sewage workers

In the last week of February 2019, Kejriwal flagged off a fleet of 200 vehicles fitted with sewer-cleaning machines. But since then, at least five people have died in Delhi’s sewers. The introduction of mechanised vehicles does not break caste-based occupational hierarchies. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
14 October, 2019

On 28 June, three workers died in a drain while working on an interceptor sewage project of the Delhi Jal Board, in West Delhi. The DJB is the primary authority responsible for the capital’s sewage system. A couple of weeks after the incident, the DJB organised a workshop for sewer workers in Delhi’s Talkatora stadium. At the event, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi who is also the chairperson of the DJB, announced that the government would provide safety gears to sewer cleaners. “Please do not be careless. You all are being given safety gear for free,” he said. “I hope and trust that we do not hear any sewer deaths at least in Delhi in future.”

The chief minister failed to answer—or even question—why the practice of manual scavenging, and sewage cleaning without protective gear, both outlawed across the country, was still taking place in the national capital. Instead, he focussed on the supposed carelessness of the deceased worker.

Delhi produces around 10,000 metric tonnes of waste daily and the burden of disposing it off is borne by the manual scavengers and sewage workers of the capital, who are predominantly from the Valmiki community—a Dalit sub-caste. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a statutory body for the welfare of sanitation workers, 38 people have died while cleaning sewers in Delhi in the past two years. The negligence of the state government’s bodies, the Public Works Department and the DJB, was a contributing factor in some of these deaths.

Over its years governing Delhi, the AAP has announced different schemes—such as allotting sewer-cleaning machines—which have helped it gain legitimacy as a party dedicated to eradicating manual sewer cleaning. But like all preceding governments of the national capital, the Kejriwal government has failed its sewer cleaners. “This Delhi government does not care for manual scavengers. They will always announce a scheme after a death and pretend to care about their plight,” Bezwada Wilson, the head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a human-rights organisation that campaigns against manual scavenging, said. Indeed, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has time and again claimed the support of manual scavengers. Wilson added that it is not just Kejriwal, every few months a government authority expresses some “renewed passion” to help manual scavengers.

Manual scavenging refers to the manual cleaning of sewage and excreta, which has historically been a caste-based occupation assigned to the Dalit community in India. The British gave legal legitimacy to the practice by creating official positions for manual scavengers in government bodies such as municipalities, and specifically hired Dalits for the task. Post-independence, the union government formed multiple committees to examine the plight of manual scavengers. Time and again, these committees recommended reforms to improve the working condition of manual scavengers. But for nearly fifty years, their findings did not translate into concrete legislation. The practice is still prevalent across the country as most of India does not have a proper sewage system. Even in areas with a functional sewage system, people are forced to enter toxic sewers and septic tanks for construction or cleaning purposes, thereby risking their lives.

In 1993, the government passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which outlawed and penalised the practice. But the law did not result in any convictions for at least twenty years. In 2003, the SKA, several other civil-liberties organisations and manual scavengers collectively filed a public-interest litigation in the Supreme Court. The PIL asked for strict implementation of the law and named many central and state government organisations as violators of the act. Among the violators was the Delhi government, which did not ratify the law till 2010 despite the widespread prevalence of manual scavenging in the capital.

The parliament passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which expanded the scope of the 1993 act, and recognised the inherent caste discrimination underlying the practice. According to the 2013 act, no person, local authority or any agency shall “engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.” It defined the term “hazardous cleaning” as carrying out such activities without the stipulated safety precautions. But no one had been convicted under the 2013 law for employing manual scavengers till at least July 2018.

In Delhi, their plight is compounded by the institutional apathy of Delhi’s municipal bodies as well as the media. Between 2014 and 2018, sanitation workers held several strikes in the capital over the municipalities’ non-payment of dues. During one of the longest strikes, in September and October last year, thousands of workers demanded that the East Delhi Municipal Corporation should pay their dues and regularise contractual workers.

The media covered the strikes extensively but primarily focused on the hygiene crises that the strike had caused, rather than the reasons behind the protest. Some residents of Delhi demanded that the workers resolve the “nuisance.” After a February 2016 strike against the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, its commissioner, PK Gupta, had also responded in a similar manner. He said that if the workers do not resume their duty, their names would be sent to the Delhi high court for creating a “nuisance.”

Meanwhile, two Delhi government’s bodies—the DJB and the PWD—have repeatedly seen its sanitation staff die during their course of work. On 22 August 2017, Rishi Pal, a middle-aged man, died while cleaning a sewer line at the Delhi government’s Lok Nayak Hospital. He was the tenth person to die while cleaning Delhi’s drains in a span of 35 days. The PWD, which was in charge of the sewer, mandated an inquiry into the case. According to the inquiry report, the engineers responsible for cleaning the sewer lines said that Pal had entered the site of his own volition, without orders from his supervisors. The report stated that Pal chose not to wait for a ladder that his colleague was bringing, and entered the manhole with just a safety rope. The inquiry found that the sub-divisional store did not have proper safety equipment, and that the manhole itself was not built as per the municipal design. The police arrested a beldar—an intermediary between the labourers and the management—in the case, but soon released him on bail.

The report also noted that Mahesh, the supervisor of the agency that had employed Pal, had said during the inquiry that the deceased worker was drunk at the time of the incident. No one else corroborated his claim, and one other sewage worker present during the incident denied it. But the inquiry report relied on Mahesh’s claim and mentioned in its findings, “It seems he was under the influence of alcohol.” Based on the statements, the PWD does not seem to have any evidence to insinuate that Pal was drunk. Munish Dasa, a 32-year-old sanitation worker who is not involved in the case, spoke to me about why sewage workers may consume alcohol during their work. “It’s not like we want to drink and go. It is impossible to go in without doing that,” he said. “No one else will do it. This is the only way it can be done.”

The Delhi government responded to the spate of deaths only after the Lok Nayak Hospital case. In fact, as Wilson had told me, the government’s track record indicates that it wakes up to the gravity of the issue and steps in only after the damage has been done. A couple of days after Pal’s death, Anil Baijal, the lieutenant governor of Delhi, chaired a meeting with officials from the Delhi government and the relevant agencies. Post the meeting, Rajendra Pal Gautam, Delhi’s minister for social welfare, told the media that “no person will be allowed to go inside the gutter for sewer cleaning under any circumstances. There will be a complete ban on it.” Yet, two years later, Kejriwal seemed to backtrack on this decision, when he announced that his government would distribute free safety gears to sewer cleaners during his speech at the Talkotra stadium.

At that meeting, the state government also decided to introduce a mechanised system for cleaning sewers across Delhi. In the last week of February 2019, Kejriwal flagged off a fleet of 200 vehicles fitted with sewer-cleaning machines. But since then, at least five people have died in Delhi’s sewers.

The introduction of mechanised vehicles does not break caste-based occupational hierarchies. According to the DJB’s project brief, the order of priority for giving these machines is—family dependents of deceased manual scavengers, sanitation workers, members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and then other individuals. In effect, even if the scheme is successful, sanitation work in the capital would continue to be the domain of the Dalit community. Wilson said, “They want to keep Valmikis subjugated. Why can’t they be given an alternate provision? Or be rehabilitated according to the provisions of the law?”

While Kejriwal has become the face of the project, the Delhi government seems to have limited involvement in the project now. The Delhi government does not give out these machines on its own. The DJB issued tenders, following which there was a bidding process. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an organisation that promotes entrepreneurship among members of the Dalit community, is responsible for mentoring the selected bidders. The selected bidder reportedly has to take a loan of Rs 40 lakh from the State Bank of India, through the central government’s Stand Up India scheme, to procure the vehicle. Of the total amount, ten percent has to be paid up front.

The scheme also does not seem financially viable for the bidders. “How will a manual scavenger take a loan of 40 lakh? It is not feasible,” Wilson said. Commenting on a different policy, an official at the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, a central government owned non-profit, also told the Indian Express that the organisation had tried to give loans to individual manual scavengers and self-help groups. “But it was found that it was beyond the capacity of the workers to take a loan up to Rs 20 lakh,” the official said.

According to Wilson, 200 vehicles will not be enough to cover the entirety of Delhi. Further, even seven months after the launch of the scheme, it remains unclear if all the 200 vehicles are out on the streets. According to a June 2019 report in the news website Newslaundry, some workers said that only 77 out of the 200 machines were operational. A sanitation worker told me in early August, “I have heard that just 34 of these machines are operational.”

The responses of authorities associated with the project raised further questions about the matter. According to Bhupesh Kumar and VK Grover, engineers of the DJB who had designed the vehicle and are now overseeing the project, all the vehicles have been allotted to the bidders. Grover said, “Kaam toh bohot badiya chal raha hai, saare gaadiya nikal chuki hai”—The work is going great, all the vehicles are out.

But Manjul Kumar, the national head of DICCI’s banking and finance division, said, “I would say that almost 75-percent of the process is done. The remaining is in process and it should be complete.” Savita Anand, the media person for Gautam, the social welfare minister, said, “Matlab, abhi pure deploy nahi hue, process chal raha hai uska. Abhi 200 completehone wale hai”—In the sense, all of them have not been deployed, the process is ongoing right now. We are about to complete 200. I asked Rohit Mehraulia, an AAP leader who heads the opposition in the EDMC and has helped with the project, about the discrepancy in the number of vehicles that have been allocated. “Everything is clear from the government’s end, whatever these issues are come from the bank’s end,” Mehraulia said. “Some loans are not getting cleared and that is because some people do not have the requisite documents or something like that,” he added.

Wilson had also filed an RTI to get details of the bidders who have been selected, but to no avail. “We have sent the number of people who have died in Delhi many times to Arvind Kejriwal, but now, when fresh case comes, there will be a huge political cry, he will come and announce something immediately,” he said. Kejriwal’s rhetoric of representing the common man and focussing on civic issues is not reflected in his actions. As noted in an April 2019 article in The Caravan, “The trajectory the party has taken has only made it complicit in steering the narrative away from questions of affirmative action and social justice.”

The Delhi government completed the first step to rehabilitation—identifying manual scavengers—only recently. The 2013 act mandated any municipality that suspected the employment of manual scavengers within its jurisdiction to undertake a survey to identify the said persons. The act stated various measures to rehabilitate the manual scavengers named in the survey, and manual scavengers who approach the municipality themselves. Last year, the municipalities had conducted surveys and identified 32 manual scavengers. The survey conducted in 2017 had failed to identify even a single worker. By the government’s own admission, the numbers “appear on the lower side.” According to Mansi Tewari, the SKA’s in-charge of rehabilitation and compensation issues, the surveys are conducted in urban centres and are poorly organised. “Many people do not have the money, time, or energy to get registered,” she said.

The obstacles are worse for migrant labourers who work as manual scavengers because their place of work is not the same as their place of birthplace—as a result, they are often not counted in these surveys. There is a lesser chance of them receiving state-assistance as well. “Whenever there is a death, and the person is not from Delhi, they just take the body and leave,” Tewari said, referring to the family of the deceased. “It is extremely difficult to find them once they are gone,” she added. Dasa, who is a migrant sanitation worker from Julana, said, “We pray that we get some business. Most people I know will not complain about the job because we have to send money home also. There is no protection at all.”

It is also tough to avail compensation if a family member dies while cleaning sewers. The deceased’s family is entitled to Rs 10 lakh from the government. But there is a long list of conditions that the families have to meet to avail the compensation. Manju, a 45-year-old woman whose husband died in July 2008, said she has not received any compensation. “My children do not have jobs. I also lost mine recently.”

The 2013 act also stated a multi-pronged method of rehabilitating manual scavengers, according to the relevant local authorities or state or central government schemes. Subject to the identified person’s willingness and eligibility, they would be allotted a residential plot; a one-time cash assistance; their children would be entitled to a scholarship; and they or one adult member of their family would be given training in a livelihood skill.

It was only at the end of June this year that the Kejriwal-led cabinet approved a rehabilitation scheme for 45 manual scavengers that it had identified. The scheme included a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 and loans up to Rs 15 lakh at concessional interest rates. The scheme merely implemented the mandate of the 2013 act—and it took nearly five years after Kejriwal came to power.

While Wilson emphasised the need for rehabilitation schemes, he was sceptical of Kejriwal and his polices. Referring to Kejriwal, he said, “He will come, announce a scheme, and everyone will be happy, the media also will never follow up, they never check about these schemes.”