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Written by Samridhi Soumya

Intern, Vidhi Parivartan

The NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) recently issued a notice to Bihar Government demanding a detailed report regarding the death of two sanitation workers in Patna. Only a week prior, the NHRC issued another notice to both Haryana and Gujarat state governments over the alleged death of seven sanitation workers in two separate incidents. These incidents raise a serious question of the extent to which the main workforce behind the Prime Minister’s vision of Swacch Bharat Abhiyan is neglected.

According to the media report, both workers in Bihar choked to death after they were made to clean an underground drain without proper safety gear. Additionally, similar circumstances were cited as the cause of death in both Haryana and Gujarat. The Commission acknowledged that if the reports indicated it was the negligence of authorities, it would lead to a serious violation of the victim’s Right to Life.

The neglect of sanitation workers is not recent. Even after 75 years of Independence, there has been no development in the scenario of living and working conditions of Sanitation Workers. They form the backbone of the hygiene and waste management system of the country but are still faced to work in inhuman conditions. The workers earn a daily wage and their source of income are unpredictable, apart from that most of the sanitation workers belong to underprivileged and socially stigmatized castes and are forced to do manual work like manual scavenging and sewer treatment.

Manual Scavenging is one of the most degrading and inhumaneworks common among local sanitation workers in India in which the workers deal with unhygienic dry latrines and manual waste. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 has banned this practice of Manual Scavenging. The Act prohibits any individual from being employed as a manual scavenger or dealing with cleaning, touching, or disposing of any dry human excretion.

In most cases, they are not provided with any safety gear, gloves, or hazard suits. They clean with their hands, often scrapping the dry toilet and the garbage withbare hands. This leads to severe health conditions in workers. Reports show that the average life expectancy of sanitation workers is 40-45 years in India which is way below the national average expectancy.

According to the report submitted by the central government to Lok Sabha in 2022, at least 347 sanitary workers allegedly died in the last 5 years pan India. The data provided that 2019 saw the highest counts of 116 death year-wise, in which UP alone witnessed 51 deaths. This was followed by 2017 which accounted for 92 deaths. Reports also suggest that most of these deaths were caused by suffocation and long-term ailments due to continuous exposure to unhygienic environments and poisonous gases. The Center suggested proper measures to tackle this deep-rooted issue by introducing the NAMASTE scheme.

The NAMASTE (National Action for Mechanized Sanitation Ecosystem) Scheme was launched in 2022 as Central Sector Scheme and was undertaken jointly by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment. Some of the main objectives of this scheme are:

  • Zero deaths or fatalities in sanitation work.
  • All sanitation work should be performed by skilled workers.
  • No worker should come in direct contact with dry human excretion matter.
  • Sanitation workers should be grouped in Self-help groups and given the authority to maintain sanitation enterprises
  • There should be an increase in awareness among sanitation service seekers to approach services from skilled and registered sanitation workers.

Apart from the necessary schemes, the National Human Rights Commission’s notice to the state governments to employ measures for the safety of the workers involved in hazardous work also seems to bring light onto the current long-term ignored issues on the basic human rights violation of sanitation workers. The commission has made it clear that the condition of sanitation workers should be improved by advancing technology in the work, spreading awareness, providing the workers with a stable source of income, and making sure they have access to the necessary gloves, helmets, suits, gears, gumboots, safety glasses, etc. The agencies and employers are to be held accountable for any neglect and casualties, and better compensation is to be provided to the families of the grieved who have lost their lives in the field of service. The last order is relevant to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan v Union of India where the SC gave a clear direction to the government regarding the compensation and rehabilitation of workers involved in manual scavenging.

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