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The Hypocrisy Behind The ‘Swachh Delhi’ App That No One Is Talking About

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WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

By Abhishek Jha:

If you move around Delhi, the one advertisement that you are bound to notice informs you about the Swachh Delhi App, which allows any smartphone-savvy person like me to ask the government to clean the city. Launched on the 16th of November, 2015, the app was to assist the Swachh Delhi Abhiyan (Clean Delhi Campaign, a week-long drive started on November 22 that was extended by 10 days). There weren’t even any political hurdles to get the plan rolling, although the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi are headed by the BJP and they, of course, don’t see eye-to-eye with the Kejriwal government.

Stories of the app’s ‘massive’ success have made news in the past month.

However, the purpose of the App was to only make us feel a part of the campaign, reminiscent of the Prime Minister’s nomination of celebrities for participating in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, while it was understood that our duty was only to complain. At the touch of the button, the headache, as we love to say, was theirs.

This then is a one of its kind awareness drive. The kind that looks good on a politician’s and a city’s CV.

There is another drive that the MCDs, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, and the Delhi Cantonment Board were directed to carry out by the Delhi High Court on the 23rd of September this year within 2 months of the said date – namely the survey of manual scavengers in the National Capital Territory. Some of the people meant to be covered by this survey are those cleaning your drains as part of the Swachh Delhi/Bharat Abhiyan and could qualify as manual scavengers. But in stark contrast to the information about the App and the ‘Abhiyans’, one has hardly heard about this survey.

An Indian labourer is lowered to clean a sewage hole in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata December 16, 2005. Acceleration in economic growth has made India amongst the 10 fastest growing developing countries. Yet, about 30 percent of India's more than one billion people live below the official poverty line of 2,100-2,400 calories a day. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal - RTR1B4O1
Image source: REUTERS/Parth Sanyal

A manual scavenger, according to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, is anybody who is either engaged or employed in “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta” until it has fully decomposed “in such manner as may be prescribed”. The survey of manual scavengers is mandated by the same Act. However, a division Bench of Justice B.D. Ahmed and Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva had observed in September while giving the order that “the very survey required to be carried out under the Act for the purpose of identification of manual scavengers has not been done in terms of the procedure, including content, methodology and timeline as prescribed.”

In late 2010 and early 2011, on the recommendation of the National Advisory Council, modalities of a fresh survey of manual scavengers and their dependents were established. The “Methodology and The Process for The Survey” that were to be followed included a Media Plan and an Awareness Campaign, which included – apart from audio-visual media, print, and outdoor publicity for self-declaration – “in appropriate cases, direct house-to-house visit in bastis of manual scavengers by enumerators, to record their declarations.”

Given that the survey hopes to aid the rehabilitation of these manual scavengers, it should go without saying that it must reach them.

At the Safai Nirikshak Karyalaya at the Ghazipur Dairy Farm, one such survey was to happen between 9 am and 5:30 pm on the 2nd of December this year, a week later than the new deadline set by the HC. However, by half past ten, as I waited, nobody had come forward to declare themselves. The office too had closed by 4 pm.

Wondering if people had any knowledge of the survey taking place, I headed to the nearby Harijan Colony, where I was told a lot of Safai Karamcharis live and met Satpal. Satpal tells me that he works with the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) as a sweeper but is also asked to clean a drain sometimes using his broom and belcha (pan). He has no uniform and does not get any gloves or boots for any kind of work. But what he seems to rue the most is that he was stuck as a temporary worker until 2003 and that it was not until 2010 that he started receiving the payment of a permanent worker.

Neither he nor his friend Mohan, who works at the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), have heard or seen any advertisement about any survey, not even about the one that was scheduled for that day, only about a kilometre and a half away. He does not get a newspaper, he says. It is unlikely, therefore, that he would have seen the ad in print. But he has seen an actor (he in unable to put a name but guesses it is either Ajay Devgn or Aamir Khan) talk about manual scavenging on television.

With no advertisements about this survey visible anywhere around them, these two then, much like most people in that colony, are clearly not going to get counted in the survey.

If one goes to the website of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, one finds a link dedicated to the survey, which leads to tabulated results of the last such survey done in statutory towns in various states. Several states claim to have zero manual scavengers, while others do show significant numbers. But with the survey still ongoing in Delhi, the numbers are somewhat misleadingly stuck at zero for the capital of the nation.

YKA wrote e-mails, made phone calls, and even tried to meet some of the officials of the municipal corporations of Delhi – who had executive responsibility of carrying out the aforementioned survey – to find whether any different modalities were being followed for the survey that was ordered by the High Court. However, by the time of the publication of this article, no comment or answers had been provided.

Swallowed By The Sewer

A labourer cleans an underground drain in Kolkata September 20, 2010. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri (INDIA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTXSG10
A labourer cleans an underground drain. Image source: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Within the survey guidelines, there is an effort at distinguishing between ‘Safai Karamcharis‘ (Sanitation Worker) and ‘Manual Scavengers’. While manual scavengers are said to be “usually self-employed or contract employees,” Safai Karamcharis are said to “normally include persons engaged as ‘sweepers’ or ‘sanitation/cleaning workers’ in municipalities, government and private offices.” This deliberate deception – not seen in the 2013 Act – can sometimes be misleading because it tries to suggest that Safai Karamcharis are unlikely to be manual scavengers. This is often, simply put, false.

Vinay Sirohi, for instance, who was killed in a digester at Delhi Jal Board’s Keshopur Sewage Treatment Plant worked as an operator but was asked to go down a digester, the unit where sludge is treated and which only produces toxic gases. His mother Seema, who works in a non-supervisory role at the same plant, is still in tears two weeks after her son’s demise when I visit her home near Uttam Nagar in East Delhi.

Seema tells me that her son was made to visit the digester before too to assist the helpers who were lowered into it and that he did not like the odour there. She says that he could not have gone inside the digester unless told to do so by a supervisor. The safety gear, she alleges, was later planted at the site of the digester to suggest that it was Vinay’s fault that he went inside the digester without wearing the safety gear. A co-worker, Vinay Tomar, was suspended because he talked to the media, she alleges.

Sirohi’s death should have made the police register a case under the Manual Scavenging Act. However, a case has been registered only under Section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of the IPC against unknown persons, according to a report by The Indian Express. When I contact Dhanraj Singh, the Assistant Sub-Inspector at Vikaspuri Police Station to enquire why the Manual Scavenging Act has not been used, he says that he has sent a notice to the company and that he will be able to say more only after he has filed the chargesheet.

A March 2014 judgment by the Supreme Court on a petition filed by the ‘Safai Karmachari Andolan’ and others asks the Union of India to “Identify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs.10 lakhs for each such death to the family members depending on them.” However, Vinay’s mother and his brother have not seen or heard of any such compensation.

Between The Lines

A worker cleans a basin in a passenger train coach at a railway station in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad October 2, 2014. On Thursday, a holiday for Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or Clean India Mission, to modernise sanitation within five years. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA - Tags: HEALTH SOCIETY POLITICS) - RTR48NKH
Image source: REUTERS/Amit Dave

The fine print of the law and guidelines, which becomes a roadblock in preventing manual sewerage work and in award of compensation when someone dies in a sewer, has another set of victims. The Indian Railways have often been accused of employing the largest number of manual scavengers because they don’t have the proper technology for disposing excreta.

“Aap vishwas nahi kijiyega… haath se uthate hain (You will not believe… We lift (the excreta) with our hands),” Pintu, who has just started work as a Safai Karamchari at the Shivaji Bridge Railway Station, tells me. Pintu wanted to study at the computer centre and prepare for an exam for 6 months to get a job, but he has a family to support.

Krishna, who works with Pintu, is in his late 20s but looks much older. He cleans the railway track with a bucket and a broom and has only a uniform provided by his employer. He does not get any gloves or boots. The use of technology in the cleaning of excreta mandated by the 2013 Act prohibiting manual scavenging is non-existent for him.

Does Pintu think that Dalits are forced to do the work of cleaning excreta? “Matric, Inter wala bhi kaam karta hai (Those who have passed their matriculation and intermediate exams also work here),” he responds hesitantly and adds that Yadavs too are sometimes hired for this work. After Krishna has left, Pintu tells me that he is a Ravidas, which is a Scheduled Caste in Bihar. His brother has also completed his intermediate education but has not found any job yet. Pintu himself could study only until the 5th or 6th standard. He has been working since. Before I leave, he wants to know whether he will be harmed in any way for talking to me and revealing information.

In another part of Delhi, at the Delhi Sarai Rohilla Station, the Mussoorie Express is being cleaned at a washing line. A middle-aged person is shouting at a group of people to clean the train properly. When asked why they don’t have any protective gear, he says that it is provided to them by their supervisor but they don’t use it. He makes all effort to pin the blame on the supervisor and the workers, but reveals only his designation after I insist. He tells me that he is a Senior Section Engineer (SSE) and I am given the contact details of Sonveer, the supervisor.

Sonveer Singh tells me that only the people on the washing line are given boots. When I tell him that I am standing at the washing line and that I see no boots, he says, “Baar baar chadhega, utarega, bhari-bhari kya pahnega? (They have to climb and get down several times. Why will they wear heavy boots?)” When I ask him whether he gives them any protective gear at all, he denies being their supervisor and tells me that he will send the supervisors to the place shortly.

———-

Activists at the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) have been fighting against manual scavenging and sewerage deaths for decades now and have seen little result. At their offices, they have thick folders of over a thousand deaths since 2010 across states, with FIRs, post-mortem reports, and other documentation for each death. Bezwada Wilson, one of the founders of SKA, says that they have finally been able to build a network to be able to document most of the deaths, but they have not yet been able to get the politicians to work. “Does this country have a plan?” he asks, as there have been three more deaths in a single day at a sewage treatment plant in Agra.

In a letter to the President in March this year, Wilson highlighted the 2014 Supreme Court judgment that orders a time-bound strategy to be developed by the railways to end manual scavenging on the tracks, and makes entering sewer lines without safety gears a crime even in emergency situations, among other things.

A man scavenges for plastic bags at an open drain in Mumbai February 22, 2007. REUTERS/Prashanth Vishwanathan (INDIA) - RTR1MP23
Image source: REUTERS/Prashanth Vishwanathan

In another letter, which the SKA sent to over 200 MPs during the week that the parliament was discussing their ‘commitment to Constitution’ this year, Wilson says that until “we are able to prevent the entry of human beings into the sewer and protect the rights of manual scavengers to life, dignity and equality, besides providing compensation for every death in sewer since 1993, we will be continuing to violate the Constitution. Until then, these kind of parliamentary actions of holding discussions on ‘commitment to the Constitution’ to mark the birth anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar are just empty rhetoric devoid of all meaning and purpose.” He suggests that the parliamentarians should suspend all work in both Houses and address the issue of sewerage deaths immediately.

To find out whether the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (a monitoring body constituted by the 2013 Act) at least had taken any action in the recent deaths in the sewers and whether it had performed its constitutional duty of monitoring the survey, YKA made several calls and even sent a questionnaire (when asked) but received no response.

———-

At the Sarai Rohilla Station, I find a lone man cleaning the dirty rail tracks. Sagar, who is from Salem, is sometimes also sent into a sewer if it is clogged. His father, who was a scrap-dealer in Mumbai, died early and Sagar did not get any education. He has two daughters who clean utensils and houses in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. They too could not get any education. The Manual Scavenging Act passed by the parliament and the missing survey that proclaims to fix the issue are, as of now, just empty words and nonexistent for people like him.

Sagar has to live with the ugly truth of cleanliness drives. “Pet ke liye karna padta hai (I have to do it for food).”

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