In 2013, with much fanfare, India’s Supreme Court abolished manual scavenging. It sought to “correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by manual scavengers” – and directed states to do the same.
In Delhi, the government has boasted that there are no manual scavengers. So, it has no specific programmes for their rehabilitation either. Three years ago, the Arvind Kejriwal government bought 200 machines to take over the work of cleaning sewage.
Yet manual scavenging continues – around 46 manual scavengers died in Delhi in just the last five years. The latest case is that of Rohit Kumar, who died on September 9 while cleaning a sewer in outer Delhi.
“He was made to go inside the manhole,” his wife Pinky Kumari told Newslaundry. “I want my husband back.”
So, what has India’s capital really done to eradicate manual scavenging? Newslaundry takes a deep dive into the issue.
Death in the drain
Rohit Kumar had no prior experience or training in cleaning sewers. He worked as a sweeper at DDA apartments in Outer Delhi’s Bakkarwala. These flats are government housing provided under the Delhi Development Authority.
On September 9, he was at his home in Bakkarwala’s JJ Colony having lunch when he was allegedly summoned back to his place of work, asking him to go into the sewer line to clean it.
“He had never worked inside a sewer line before,” his brother Deepak Kumar said. “He was made to go inside.”
An eyewitness, Suresh Kumar, told Newslaundry there had been a “blockage” and that a security guard named Ashok purportedly urged Rohit to open the manhole and descend. But Deepak said this was at the behest of the building’s pradhan.
“First, he went inside and cleared the blockage,” Suresh alleged. “Then he came out, even had a bath. But Ashok was not convinced it was cleared and asked Rohit to enter the sewer again. This time, he went down and fell unconscious.”
Rohit never came back up. Suresh alleged he and another bystander tried to rescue him, but passed out as well from the fumes, leading to a fourth person to pull them up.
“It was then that Ashok entered the manhole to save Rohit,” Suresh said, “but he too fell unconscious. Both of them died.”
The police filed an FIR at Mundka police station under section 304A (causing death by negligence). The DDA said Rohit, a “private” individual, had “entered into the sewer manhole without any instruction/intimation to the DDA”.
Suresh also said Rohit had not been provided with any safety gear before being “forced” into the manhole. Munna Kumar, a resident of the complex, told Newslaundry sewers in the area are routinely cleaned manually.
Bakkarwala village is spread over 50 acres, with four DDA societies. Residents say they aren’t serviced by the Delhi Jal Board, the nodal authority that looks after water supply and sewage management in the national capital region, because, as one resident put it, “the DDA is yet to hand over the housing scheme to the DJB”.
This was confirmed by a DDA official who said in the case of DDA flats, the handover gets “stuck” because the Jal Board requires the sewer lines to be constructed as per a particular standard. “It asks the DDA to either reconstruct or pay deficiency charges,” the official said. “This is where the process gets delayed.”
In the nine years since India “banned” manual scavenging, Rohit’s is just one of many cases of manual scavengers losing their lives during the course of their work. The central government only acknowledges manual scavenging deaths as involving dry latrines. Farcically, , the government said India has reported “no death due to manual scavenging” since 1993, but 971 have died since then “while cleaning sewers or septic tanks”.
Delhi reported 42 deaths “while cleaning sewers and septic tanks” since 2017 – the third highest in the country after Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Ninety-seven people have died in Delhi from 1997 to April 2022.
Newslaundry learned that the capital lacks a well-planned waste management system, a problem compounded by negligence from the multiple government agencies involved in its maintenance and operation. Every year, its drains clog and its sewer lines overflow, often into residential areas like JJ Colony in Wazirpur.
Residents live with this sludge while those deputed to clean it sometimes die in the process. Delhi’s much-touted mechanisation of sewer cleaning has not fixed the problem.
Importantly, according to the Delhi Sewage Master Plan 2031, 50 percent of Delhi is still not connected with the sewage system. The majority of manual scavenging, and its associated deaths, take place while cleaning the non-sewer system, such as septic tanks.
A 40-year-old drainage system
“See, this is a rainwater drain. An hour ago, this was cleaned manually by a worker,” said Govind Birlan, pointing at a heap of sludge as we stroll through the narrow lanes of Wazirpur’s JJ Colony.
Birlan, who worked as a sewer cleaner in Delhi for over a decade, added, “There is no system. One cannot say which is a rainwater drain and which is a sewer. Both contain sewage.”
Delhi’s drainage network, which is astoundingly based on a plan that is , comprises stormwater drains and rainwater drains, and a separate system of sewer lines.
Rainwater drains are four feet deep and are used to drain out rainwater and wastewater generated from sources other than toilets. Stormwater drains are larger and are meant to drain excess rain- and groundwater from impervious surfaces such as paved streets, parking lots, footpaths, sidewalks and roofs. Sewer lines are underground networks of pipes that channel waste from toilets, tubs and sinks in households.
In Delhi, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi maintains rainwater drains while the public works department is in charge of stormwater drains. Sewer lines come under the purview of the Delhi Jal Board.
While all three are distinct networks on paper, they bleed into each other on the ground.
For instance, unauthorised colonies – and Delhi has 1,797 unauthorised colonies and 675 JJ colonies – often don’t even have sewer lines, so sewage flows into the colonies’ stormwater drains.
Importantly, a performance audit report, issued on July 5 by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, noted “out of 34 works” of Phase I of the Sewerage Master Plan for Delhi - 2031 to be completed by 2016, “only 11 works were completed by July 2018 with 20 works being in progress and three still at pre-execution stage”.
It also noted that out of 1,797 unauthorised colonies, 1,573 – or 88 percent – “were not provided with sewerage facilities as of March 2018”. As a result, the sewage from these 1,573 colonies “flowed into stormwater drains and eventually into River Yamuna in its untreated form”.
A sub-inspector with the Delhi Jal Board admitted that in “some congested localities”, sewer lines and rainwater drains are “interconnected to avoid overflowing”. This was also corroborated by sanitation workers, but the official line taken by the MCD and PWD is that their drains have nothing to do with sewage.
“We maintain drains with a depth of four feet and it contains rainwater only,” said Amit Kumar, public relations officer with the MCD, which oversees Delhi’s rainwater drains. “It has nothing to do with sewage. We have our sanitation workers who are provided with all equipment to clean these drains.”
The same line was taken by a PWD official. When pressed, however, he admitted on condition of anonymity that sewage “sometimes” enters the PWD’s stormwater drains.
“But sewage lines don’t come under our jurisdiction,” he pointed out.
All three bodies – the MCD, PWD and Jal Board – categorically told Newslaundry they do not employ manual scavengers to clean the waste systems under their jurisdictions in accordance with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, passed in 2013.
The act describes the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks as “hazardous cleaning”. But it only prohibits it if an individual is not provided with protective gear.
What this means on the ground is that individuals are employed to clean human waste by hand in Delhi. Their work is simply not recognised as manual scavenging.
Delhi has around 30,000 sanitation workers, who clean sewers, septic tanks, public toilets, and others. Ninety percent of them, according to officials, belong to the Valmiki community, a Dalit sub-caste.
Enter the machine
In 2019, the Delhi government under Arvind Kejriwal launched an ambitious project to “end manual scavenging” in the capital by flagging off a fleet of 200 sewer cleaning machines.
The headlines sounded extremely virtuous at the time – a government paying to mechanise a process that humans were forced to do, while making sure the humans themselves did not lose employment.
Of course, this isn’t really what happened.
The government issued tenders to own 200 sewer cleaning machines, offering preference to sanitation workers who had lost a family member to manual scavenging; and members of SC/ST communities. These machines would be used solely to clean sewer lines in Delhi.
Each machine cost Rs 40 lakh. Beneficiaries would have to pay Rs 4 lakh upfront while the rest came from a State Bank of India guarantee-free loan that had to be paid off over five years.
A firm named Smart Green Infra & Logistics Management India Private Limited, or SGL, was given the contract to work as an aggregator company for these machines. SGL also acts as the point of contact between the government and those operating the machines.
As of August 2022, 189 beneficiaries operate machines in Delhi. The loans of the remaining 11 were not approved. Of these 189, only six have lost a family member to manual scavenging. Fifty are women, and the remaining belong to SC communities.
The beneficiaries don’t run the machines themselves. Everything is handled by SGL.
Sagar Ranawat, a representative from SGL, told Newslaundry, “We are the aggregator company of all these 189 vehicles. These vehicles work in different wards under different junior engineers across Delhi. Our work involves supervision of these vehicles, looking after technical and operational problems faced by these vehicles, and providing drivers and helpers for these vehicles.”
According to Ranawat, it costs between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh – termed “monthly billing” – to run the machine per month. Each machine is staffed by a driver and two helpers, hired on contractual basis and paid Rs 12,000-15,000 per month.
After deducting “monthly instalments and other expenses”, a machine’s owner earns “around Rs 30,000-40,000 per month”, he said. SGL handles all the paperwork and takes a five percent cut of the monthly billing per machine.
At least six beneficiaries confirmed to Newslaundry that they earn between Rs 30,000 and Rs 35,000 per month. But they were clueless as to where or how these machines actually work – they are engaged in other jobs and leave the running of the machines to SGL. This seems a far cry from how the scheme had initially been envisioned, which was to transform the beneficiaries into “entrepreneurs”.
“I have no idea about how these machines function,” said Rekha, a beneficiary whose husband died in 2017 while cleaning a sewer in Lajpat Nagar. “SGL looks after everything and we only get the dues for the machine every month.”
Newslaundry had filed an RTI seeking details of these sewer cleaning machines. In response, the Delhi Jal Board said the Delhi government’s budget allocation was Rs 26,22,83,917 in 2019-20. The budget rose dramatically to Rs 47,70,84,212 in 2020-21, and again to Rs 57,48,89,996 in 2021-22. Until May this year, the budget allocation stood at Rs 13,43,32,349.
As of August 2022, 189 beneficiaries operate machines in Delhi.
A top official at the Jal Board told Newslaundry the department spends at least Rs 4 crore per month to pay the bills for the sewer cleaning machines. If this is correct, it puts SGL’s monthly revenue at around Rs 20 lakh.
That’s not all.
We mentioned earlier that beneficiaries had to pay Rs 4 lakh upfront for the machines. In some cases, where beneficiaries could not afford to pay the amount upfront, the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry stepped in and paid it for them – at least two beneficiaries confirmed this to Newslaundry.
DICCI’s national president is Ravi Kumar Narra – who is also a director at SGL.
Newslaundry reached out to Narra for comment, but received no response.
‘Do you think 189 machines are enough?’
But have these machines helped?
For operational purposes, each machine is mounted on a vehicle the size of a pickup truck. Deployed to clear blockages in the sewage system, its work comprises grabbing (removing silt with a mechanical claw), jetting (releasing high-pressure streams of water from a hose), and rodding (where rods are rotated at high speeds to break the sludge).
The Jal Board says these machines have ended manual scavenging in the city. Sanitation workers, however, said the machines aren’t enough to clean all the sewage lines in the capital.
“The machines are here, but these machines cannot clean in narrow lanes,” said Ramkumar, a sewer cleaner in Okhla, referring to the fact that the machines can’t squeeze into lanes of this size. “This is why the lines need to be cleaned manually.”
Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, told Newslaundry the machines can barely cover five to 10 percent of the total work – and the remaining work is done manually.
“Knowing the size of Delhi and its population, do you think 189 machines are enough?” he said. “Besides, many of these machines are non-functioning and cannot enter the narrow lanes in many colonies.” Newslaundry could not verify whether or why any machines are non-functioning.
According to a Jal Board official, the Jal Board has allotted the 189 machines across 70 executive engineers in the union territory. But residents of Wazirpur’s JJ Colony alleged the machines have never been brought to their area, despite repeated complaints about overflowing sewer lines.
And, if the machines are unable to clear blockages, workers are called in.
Govind Birlan alleged the Jal Board, MCD and PWD engage workers for manual scavenging “through private contractors” at a daily wage of Rs 200-300.
“When there is some blockage in sewer lines or drains and the machine cannot clean it, the contractors call us for work,” said a sanitation worker in south Delhi. “They give us a daily wage ranging from Rs. 250 to Rs. 350, depending on the work.”
At least eight sanitation workers told Newslaundry the majority of their work is manual scavenging. They get work through these “private contractors” except for cases where private individuals hire them to clean toilets or septic tanks.
Septic tanks are privately owned, and the government plays no role in their cleaning. Omi Lal, 50, a sanitation worker in East Delhi’s Nand Nagri, said cleaning septic tanks is “risky and dangerous”.
“In septic tanks, one has to go down and take out the human excreta. Two or more others need to be outside holding a rope. Another has to throw the excreta we take out from the tank,” Lal explained. “Septic tanks are often closed for years and so, when you open them, an unbearable gas is leaked. The gas is so harmful that it can even make you unconscious. That is when accidents happen.”
Srinivas Chary, director of the Centre for Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development in Hyderabad, told Newslaundry that in cities like Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, only half of the localities have sewer connections. The rest make do with non-sewer systems such as septic tanks, latrines and sewage treatment plants.
“Most of the deaths happen in these non-sewer systems,” Chary said. “In sewer lines, there are at least some mechanised systems in place. But non-sewer cleaning systems are privately arranged.”
He added, “Ideally, the government should be responsible for cleaning non-sewer areas. But in a complex system like Delhi – where you have a sewer system and a non-sewer system and peripheral areas where multiple agencies are involved – there should be a single responsible sanitation authority. This should be the DJB.”
Newslaundry reached out to Bhupesh Kumar, additional chief executive engineer of the Delhi Jal Board. He said the Jal Board is “planning to hire machines for septic tank cleaning as well”.
“It is under process,” he said.
A dearth of safety gear
In the absence of an accountable sanitation authority in the national capital, the safety of its sanitation workers also falls by the wayside. This is in absolute violation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
It was also reiterated in a 2021 advisory issued by the National Human Rights Commission, while said all sanitary workers “entering/cleaning septic tanks/sewer lines” are required to be provided with “helmet, safety jacket, gloves, mask, gumboots, safety eyeglasses, torchlight along with oxygen cylinder.”
The advisory said: “It should be the responsibility of the local authority/hiring agency to provide all necessary personal protective gear/safety equipment to the sanitary workers irrespective of their type of employment, i.e., permanent, temporary, part-time or contractually hired/engaged.”
However, at least eight sanitation workers told Newslaundry they are not given protective equipment while cleaning sewer lines or septic tanks. It should be remembered that they’re technically hired by private contractors, not directly by the government.
“We enter them only in our underwear,” said Santosh Kumar, a sanitation worker in Nand Nagri. “Nothing is provided.”
Rohit Kumar’s family following his death.
Pradip Kumar, a sanitation worker in Okhla, said, “Sometimes we get gloves, clothes and other equipment from NGOs. That’s it. We don’t get any protective gear from our contractors or other agencies.”
On who is responsible for providing protective gear, Srinivas Chary said, “If it is an area with sewer lines, the government has to enforce it. But if it is a non-sewer area, the government has no jurisdiction. So, it is the responsibility of citizens to enforce the guidelines on protective gear.”
Ravi Shankar, a member of the Delhi Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a state-level statutory body to safeguard the interests of sanitation workers, said citizens also need to be more aware.
“The government is making an effort to end the practice of manually cleaning sewer lines,” he said. “If you complain, machines are sent to clean it up. But people are in a hurry. They will ask some drunk or inexperienced guy to clean it. That’s how these untoward incidents take place.”
He added, “Unemployment in the country is so high. It is because of widespread unemployment that people have no option but to take up work such as cleaning sewer lines.”
Compensation and rehabilitation
In July 2022, the Delhi Commission for Safai Karamcharis demanded an increase in compensation – from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 25 lakh – paid to families of those who die while cleaning sewer lines in Delhi.
“The compensation amount of Rs 10 lakh was directed by the Supreme Court in 2014,” Ravi Shankar said. “Given the rate of inflation and current situation, is it enough? That’s why we demanded an increase in this compensation amount.”
Ravi and his colleague Anita Ujjainwal also flagged delays in the compensation. Out of 99 manual scavenger deaths in Delhi that they surveyed until May 2022, they said no compensation had been paid in four cases. In 15 cases, families of the deceased had allegedly been paid less than the assured sum of Rs 10 lakh.
Compensation aside, the Supreme Court in 2014 had directed authorities to “identify and rehabilitate” manual scavengers across states and union territories. Last July, the social justice ministry told the Lok Sabha that two surveys – one in 2013 and the other in 2018 – had been carried out to identify manual scavengers as per the PEMSR Act. The surveys identified 58,098 manual scavengers eligible for rehabilitation.
But Delhi is not on the list of beneficiaries.
Delhi also does not figure as a beneficiary of the central government’s Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, or SRMS, under which identified manual scavengers are given one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 and helped to switch occupations.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government conducted its own survey in 2018 and identified 45 manual scavengers in the capital. In June 2019, the Delhi government approved a rehabilitation programme to provide identified manual scavengers with cash assistance of Rs 40,000, concessional loans up to Rs 15 lakh, and credit-linked capital subsidies of Rs 3.25 lakh.
In its 2019–20 budget speech, the Delhi government said it had initiated “successful” programmes to uplift Dalit communities, such as the Jai Bhim Mukhyamantri Pratibha Vijas Yojana and the mechanisation of sewer cleaning.
However, since 2019, its budget has contained no specific mention of the budgetary allocation for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Newslaundry also filed an RTI in July requesting the details of schemes launched by the Delhi government for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and the budgets allocated for the same. We did not receive a response.
However, did its slew of programmes and initiatives have an impact?
The beneficiaries we spoke to seemed unconvinced.
Bishnoo, a resident of Kalyan Puri, was identified as a manual scavenger in 2018 by the Shahdara district magistrate. Under the skill development ministry, he was enrolled in a skill-training course to become a housekeeper. Bishnoo was then given a certificate and an offer letter promising employment at the Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society with a gross salary of Rs 14,000 per month.
When Bishnoo turned up for the job, he was told the offer letter was fake. He was too upset to speak to Newslaundry about it in detail, saying, “I have told my stories to a lot of media persons but nothing happens. I don’t want to say anything to anyone.” His neighbour, Pintu Parch, told Newslaundry two others from the same area had also been “cheated” but we could not confirm this.
The office of the subdivisional magistrate of Shahdara told Newslaundry it is unaware of any cases of “cheating”.
And yet, there are other manual scavengers in Delhi who are not formally “identified” as manual scavengers – so they don’t qualify for any of these programmes or schemes.
Munna Lal, 55, and his Sharda, 50, both residents of Nand Nagri, told Newslaundry they left their work as manual scavengers 10 years ago.
“But we have not received anything other than some ration a few days after I quit the work,” Munna Lal said. “What can we do now? Nobody looks after us. So we have no option but to work as ragpickers to earn our livelihood.”
Illustrations by Shambhavi Thakur.
Infographics by Gobindh VB.
This report is supported by the Thakur Foundation.
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