India has cultivated into something of an art form the concept of turning the worst proclivities of its people and administration into harmless-sounding euphemisms – eve-teasing, college ragging, manual scavenging. All three have caused deaths. All three sound like things one does on a bored afternoon.
Five years after the last amendment to the 1993 law which outlawed “manual scavenging” in India – the amendment was the inclusion of cleaning of sewers and septic tanks under “manual scavenging” – the government has supplied official statistics on deaths caused by this horrific practice: one every five days, according to numbers collated by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK).
The NCSK is a statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of “sanitation workers”. Ah, the irony of a commission being set up to monitor people who are not supposed to exist!
According to these statistics, 123 people have lost their lives since January 2017, climbing into toxic fumes and filthy waters without any protective gear. Bharat must be kept swachch, but the workers who do it can literally climb into hell.
Another peculiarly Indian trait we have exhibited over the last few days has been the conversion of a shocking story of neglect and indifference into a heart-warming story of humaneness: the family of a man who died climbing into a septic tank and could not be cremated because his relatives didn’t have the money to pay for his last rites has now received a sum they could not have dreamt of, because of the generosity of people who saw a viral photograph of the deceased’s son looking at his body.
And so, a man who should not have died has turned into a news item, a death which sparked a praiseworthy response from the people whose excreta he waded through in his last moments. A few years from now, reporters will revisit his story, speak to his widow who will express gratitude to the people who enabled her to educate her children and build a house, speak to the boy who would have matriculated school and got into college and dream of becoming a doctor.
How many more people have died, without their photographs going viral, without money for their bodies to be cremated, without a legacy of positive stories from Twitter? The Safai Karmchari Andolan, an independent organisation, says at least 300 manual scavengers have died on duty since January 2017.
The enumeration exercise carried out by the NCSK covered only 18 states and union territories, leaving out 17 others. Of the 170 districts surveyed, only 109 filed responses, and only 62 reported the death of at least one manual scavenger. Officials involved in the exercise admitted that most of the data was collated from English and Hindi newspapers, not even regional ones which would provide local news in more detail.
One can only imagine how underreported the deaths are, particularly since the toll does not include death from disease; it only covers asphyxiation and other kinds of instant fatal injury.
Years after the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 was passed, five sanitation workers died in a single incident in Delhi, one after the other. When one man fell unconscious, another was sent to check on him, and then another, and then another, and so on, as if out of a morbid fantastical tale. How can we not even have equipment to pull a worker to safety without endangering someone else?
Last year, the documentary Kakkoos by lawyer and filmmaker Divya Bharathi exposed not only the terrible conditions under which manual scavengers labour, but also the role of caste in their vocation. The film was denied certification by the Central Board of Film Certification, the filmmaker received death threats, cases were filed against her in court, and the police stopped several screenings across Tamil Nadu.
The film shows visuals that no government wants its people to watch. The camera focuses on the things and people we have ejected from ourselves and our consciousness respectively; it exposes the ineptitude of the government that has put these systems in place, and the indifference of the public towards such vile working conditions.
We see the “conservancy workers” – another euphemism – employed by private contractors removing faeces with their bare hands, climbing into septic tanks, scraping away at dry latrines, standing barefoot in overflowing toilets, and plunging into manholes and open drains, handling not just excreta but hazardous medical waste.
Why was the film denied certification? Why did the police worry about a law and order problem?
The truth is this: our country produces even more filth than we see while driving through the roads in daylight; men and women work through the nights and early in the morning to remove as much garbage as they can before our privileged eyes can see them, and toil through the day to try and keep the rate of disposal in proportion to the rate of accumulation of filth.
We could raise more than a million dollars for one man after his death, but we could not fund a mask and protective clothing that would have saved him from that death.
We have commissions to ensure the rehabilitation of “manual scavengers”, but they continue to die, and no funds have been released for this “rehabilitation”. We do not know into what professions they are “rehabilitated”.
As we exhort ourselves to clean India, we’re also sweeping up corpses and pushing them out of sight.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
LGBTQIA rights have a long way to go
V S Naipaul: The man the world loved to hate
The legacy of Karunanidhi
"Rapistan": There are no safe places
The "most dangerous country" poll should not make us defensive
The illusion of secularism
When hooliganism is state-sanctioned
Tarun Tejpal case: When the media plays jury
Karnataka: Death of democracy
India shining as ecosystems die?
Tamil Nadu: The land of the lawless
When death does not deter
Power play at a time of crisis
A country in denial
The gods have left the temples
What cricketers' reactions to ball-tampering show
Even Chhota Bheem knows our data was never private
No Confidence Motion: Why is the BJP nervous?
Do we really have the right to die with dignity?
Democracy has no place for mobs
The Sridevi South India lost
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.