Narendra Modi's flagship 'Swachh Bharat' program is in its fourth year, but underneath the sheen lies the dark reality of manual scavenging, which was again highlighted by the death of five sanitation workers in West Delhi.
Yet, it's not the law that's letting manual scavengers down, but denial on part of governments, and a lack of political will to bring about progressive social change.
Context: Recent deaths in West Delhi raise major questions
On September 9, five young workers died of toxic fumes while cleaning a septic tank at an upscale West Delhi residential complex.
While tragedy and outrage gripped their kin, the incident also highlighted the saga of neglect and exploitation that has come to characterize the story of manual scavengers, even in modern, 21st century India.
Had the law been followed, the deaths could've been avoided
It's worth noting here that the deaths might have been avoided had the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, been followed.
The Act clearly places an obligation on every employer who employs people to clean sewers/septic tanks to provide cleaners with adequate cleaning equipment, the knowledge to operate them, and safety gear, including full-body suits.
The law requires governments to rehabilitate manual scavengers too
Manual scavenging itself was outlawed in India in 1993, and the new Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 requires governments to actively try and rehabilitate manual scavengers and provide them with alternative means of employment.
The reality is starkly different from the law
Yet, the reality is starkly different from the law.
While the law prohibits the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective gear, over 300 manual-scavenging related deaths were officially reported in India in 2017 - that's almost one sanitation worker a day.
To make matters worse, rehabilitation of manual scavengers is almost unheard of in recent times.
A 2018 survey found a four-fold increase in manual scavengers
But, that's not all.
A recent survey by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), covering 121 out of India's 718 districts, counted as many as 53,236 manual scavengers in India - a four-fold increase over the official count of around 13,000 in 2017.
Extrapolate that figure to cover all of India's districts, and you have a problem of colossal proportions.
SKA data reveals the massive scale of the problem
Indeed, Magsaysay Award-winner Bezwada Wilson's Safai Karmachari Andolan's (SKA) data reflects the same.
According to SKA data, India has 2.6 million dry latrines, 770,000 sewer cleaners, and 36,176 cleaners for the Indian Railways, which happens to be the single largest employer of manual scavengers in the country.
Additionally, SKA notes that over 1,760 manual scavengers have died in the past couple of years.
So, what's the government doing about it?
In June, the Delhi government announced that 200 manual scavengers would be provided with financial help to buy sewer cleaning machines that cost Rs. 38 lakh each.
While that marked at least some effort in the right direction, Modi's Swachh Bharat campaign, that has spent thousands of crores of rupees on advertising, still remains silent about the issue of manual scavenging.
The Modi government hasn't released a single penny for rehabilitation
A recent RTI filed by The Wire revealed that the Modi government, from 2014 to September 2, 2017, had not released a single penny for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment's 'Self Employment for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers' scheme that aims to rehabilitate manual scavengers.
For comparison, Rs. 226cr was released between 2007 and 2014 for the scheme.
Where is Modi's Swachh Bharat scheme headed?
With the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan nearing its fourth anniversary, it's now imperative to ask what it has achieved and where it's headed.
The focus of the scheme, so far, has largely been on building toilets, which is commendable.
However, the NDA government has not, for a moment, stopped to think what that would mean for the throngs of manual scavengers in India.
The burden on India's manual scavengers will be unthinkable
"Under its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government had planned to build 21 crore toilets by 2019. Did they think in terms of the number of septic tanks and the burden it will have on scavengers?," Dalit activist Bezwada Wilson had earlier asked.
Swachh Bharat: Indirect oppression in the name of development?
Indeed, if the rise in number of toilets in India, presuming that it's achieved, isn't accompanied by a proportionate rise in mechanized sewer/septic tank cleaning infrastructure, there will be no relief for the lakhs of manual scavengers in India.
If such is the case, as the current situation indicates, is not the Swachh Bharat scheme complicit in indirect oppression in the name of development?