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Over 370 deaths in 5 years: How many more till manual scavenging ends?

Developing technology to eliminate human involvement in sewer cleaning in India is still in the nascent stages


A Municipal Corporation worker enters a manhole for sewage cleaning at Mahatama Gandhi Road, in Kolkata

said the government would employ technology for cleaning sewer systems and septic tanks, and eliminate the need for manual cleaning both through technology and legislation in her Budget speech on February 1. But, even though a law to ban the manual cleaning of sewers was passed in 1993, more than 370 sanitation workers have died in the five years to 2019 while manually cleaning sewers. Developing technology to eliminate human involvement in sewer cleaning in India is still in the nascent stages and caste is a major barrier to eliminating manual cleaning.

Unimplemented legislation

The direct handling of human excreta by sanitation workers has been banned since 1993 under the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which also prohibited the construction and maintenance of dry latrines. Since December 6, 2013, manual scavenging has been banned under the Prohibition of Employment as and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Yet, manual scavenging and cleaning sewers and septic tanks continues. Even in the age of robotic technology, there has not been much headway in changing how sanitation work is carried out in India, experts said.

Claim: “Our government is determined that there shall be no manual cleaning of sewer systems or septic tanks. Suitable technologies for such tasks have been identified by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The ministry is working with urban local bodies for the adoption of these technologies. We will now take this to its logical conclusion through legislative and institutional changes. Financial support for wider acceptance of such technologies will be provided.” (Budget 2020-21)

Fact: There were 376 deaths in five years to 2019, while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, with 110 deaths in 2019. Technology for cleaning sewers and septic tanks is at a nascent stage and does not offer a comprehensive solution.


First Published: Sun, March 22 2020. 22:41 IST