Thousands of people, especially Dalits and women, have died of asphyxiation from manual waste collection. A 2013 law designed to ban the practice has not been enforced. Despite its plans for a ‘Clean India’, the current government has done little to improve the situation.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – "Stop killing us" reads a large banner carried by hundreds of Dalits, activists and relatives of sewer workers who died asphyxiated whilst manually cleaning away rubbish and human waste.
Although manual waste collection has been banned, it is still widespread in India. The work is the exclusive obligation of Dalits and women, who traditionally perform this humble and degrading task since it is reserved for India’s lower castes.
After the latest incident in which one of their own died last week, sewer workers decided to protest in order to stop the deaths and reiterate their right to live with dignity.
Yesterday’s demonstration was organised by Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a national human rights group that has fought against manual waste collection since 1994 and has helped Dalits find decent and fulfilling jobs.
For "reclaiming for the Dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright”, SKA convenor Bezwada Wilson won the Magsaysay award, the Asian Nobel Prize, in 2016.
Since the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as the Manual Scavenger and their Rehabilitation Act was adopted, " As many as 1,790 people have died in the country,” Wilson said, adding “Who is responsible for these deaths? We all deserve to live with dignity and self-respect.”
Protesters complain that whilst the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning bullet trains and other mega-infrastructures, it is not planning ways to dispose of waste.
To clean out sewers and drains requires workers to drop into waste up to their neck sometimes. The stench is so bad that it can be overpowering.
This was the case for Anil, who died last week in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh), and another 11 workers who died in the capital in the past week.
The relatives of the victims want compensation for the death of their loved ones as well as a final end to the practice.
They cite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Clean India’ programme designed to clean up roads, cities and rural settlements, and keep them clean.
This would require eliminating outdoor defecating by building household- and community-owned toilets.
This will be too late for one protester. "I lost my only son," said Saroj, a protester from Punjab. “How long will these deaths continue?" she asks.
And for many, the question is: “A ‘Clean India’ but for whom?”