Killer Septic Tanks: Avoidable Problems, No Solutions

Manual scavenging is the process of manually cleaning dry latrines of human excreta. The scavengers crawl into the latrines to collect the excreta with their bare hands, later carrying it as a head-load in a container to dispose of it. It can be traced back to the Varna system of the Puranic age, which subjects people to not only exploitation but also death.

This act, or rather, profession (as it has now become) not only violates ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ but also violates the fundamental right to life and dignity, as given under Article 21 of the Indian constitution.

More often than not, the privileged sections of our society force this dirty work on the poor, who are in dire need of work. In most cases, these include people from so-called lower castes. It is speculated that over 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, sustain their livelihood by working as manual scavengers. Participating in this derogatory act further prevents their assimilation into society, thus continuing the age old caste system in a different way. People need to realize that human life is more valuable than money and social status, which should be used to uplift downtrodden. As Gandhiji said, ‘the higher class should act as a protector and benefactor to the rest of the society.’

Clearly, manual scavenging is a dangerous job, which has mutated to take the modern form of cleaning septic tanks. To understand the dangers involved in this we need to understand the workings of a septic tank. A septic tank is an underground tank that stores wastewater until bacteria decomposes the solid excreta, giving out toxic fumes in the process. These fumes when inhaled in large quantities, may lead to asphyxiation– something that has happened in countless cases in India.

The Court only mandates the use of proper protection gear by trained personnel while being lowered into septic tanks, and the government has also banned the construction of dry toilets or toilets without proper sewage lines.

Despite this legal provision existing in place to protect these people, 13 deaths have been reported last month itself, due to people entering septic tanks without any protection. Men and women have lost their lives because the literal and metaphorical shit of other people. That this has happened under the nose of a government that has declared manual scavenging to be illegal has become the subject of national outrage and concern.

The politics surrounding Dalits is dominated by issues regarding agricultural labour, which is why the concerns of manual scavengers have gone unheard so far. With the advent of the Swacchta Bharat Abhiyan, the state of sanitation has become better but the state of the workers has become worse. There has been a rise in the number of septic tanks, which has increased the burden on the cleaners – failing to reduce their employment rates. The scope of the Swacchta Bharat Abhiyan needs to take care of the welfare of these people, as they are risking their lives on a daily basis, for a pittance of 30 rupees a month.

We cannot have cases in this day and age wherein people are so destitute that they think nothing of their lives and go down to these tanks; only to suffocate to death—something

that happened very recently in the capital city of India. This is also evident of the failure of the government in rehabilitating this section of society or ensuring their upliftment, which is the only thing that can end this profession. The government also needs to ensure their employment and enrol them in free vocational studies so that they are not forced to clean human faeces.

It is shocking that in a country where we are constructing skyscrapers, metros, and rockets, simple sanitation ignored. India is home to some of the best and most innovative minds of the world, yet, it still fails to create efficient wastewater disposal mechanisms. An active effort on the part of the government and engineers could end this problem once and for all.

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