443 lives lost: The grim reality of sewer cleaning in India

| Updated: 06 December, 2023 12:54 pm IST
49 lives had been lost to unsafe sewer and septic tank cleaning by November 20 this year

NEW DELHI: As many as 49 lives had been lost to unsafe sewer and septic tank cleaning by November 20 this year, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Ramdas Athawale, disclosed. While discussing this alarming statistic, he also underscored the human cost of a hazardous occupation that continues to claim lives across the nation.

The data reveals a chilling narrative of tragedy, with more than 400 deaths reported since 2018. The toll includes 76 deaths in 2018, 133 in 2019, 35 in 2020, 66 in 2021, 84 in 2022, and 49 up to November 20 in 2023. These numbers shed light on the persistent dangers faced by those engaged in manual scavenging, a practice officially prohibited by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

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The recent disclosure prompted Trinamool Congress member Aparupa Poddar to seek state-wise details of these fatalities, unearthing a disturbing reality. This year alone, Rajasthan reported the highest number of deaths (10), followed by Gujarat (9), with Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu each witnessing seven tragic cases.

The gravity of the situation extends beyond the tragic statistics. A total of 44,217 manual scavengers were identified in the National Survey of Manual Scavengers initiated in 2018 at the behest of the NITI Aayog. Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 20,884 cases, followed by Maharashtra (6,325), Uttarakhand (4,854), Assam (3,771), Rajasthan (2,340), and Karnataka (2,238).

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Athawale emphasised the legal framework against manual scavenging, stating, “As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavenging is a prohibited activity in the country.” However, the grim reality persists, highlighting the need for more robust enforcement and proactive measures.

The heartbreaking toll of lives lost underscores the urgency for a paradigm shift in sewer and septic tank cleaning practices. The introduction of manhole cleaning robots, as proposed by authorities in West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Kerala, could be a transformative solution. However, the lack of data on their deployment raises questions about the effectiveness of such initiatives.

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