04/08/2019, 16.58
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Sewer cleaners slam Narendra Modi for unfulfilled promises

The manual waste collector association launches its first political manifesto. Traditionally, sewer cleaning has been reserved to Dalits. In the past ten years, at least 1,800 workers have drowned in excrement.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Prime Minister Narendra Modi has failed to live up to his promises, this according to the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), the association of manual waste collectors (also known as manual scavengers).

For the first time in the country’s history, SKA has presented an electoral manifesto on the eve of the general election, which begins next Thursday.

At the same time, it is demanding an "unconditional apology from the prime minister for the historical injustice done to people who manually collect waste.”

The call is a blow to the prime minister for doing nothing during his five years in power to improve the conditions of sewer cleaners, who continue to die in great numbers asphyxiated or drowned in excrement.

The SKA manifesto was presented at the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi on 4 April. SKA’s president, Bezwada Wilson, the 2016 Magsaysay Award laureate, released a ten-point plan in a series of posts on Twitter.

Waste collectors demand the abolition of caste discrimination that relegates them to the most degrading job there is, namely removing human excrement from sewers by hand, without the use of gloves or protective suits.

The association points in particular to promises Modi made recently. In February, all Indian newspapers and TV stations showed the prime minister washing the feet of five manual waste collectors (pictured).

The event was seen and heard around the country first of all because the five workers were Dalits, who were formerly known as pariahs and still carry the stigma of untouchability.

Secondly, the prime minister pledged on that occasion that he would abolish manual excrement collection and improve the working conditions of those employed in this activity.

One of the issues that pits the group against the authorities is the number of people involved in this work. According to the latter, there are between 14,000 and 31,000 sewer cleaners across the country. Conversely, SKA says that the number is far higher, 770,000.

The association reports that around 1,800 people have died of asphyxiation in the last ten years, 31 of them in the last three months.

Among other things, the movement wants all sewer workers and their dependents to be issued with a Right to life21 (RL-21) card* to provide them with direct and free access to education, health care, and dignified employment.

SKA also demands that 1 per cent of the Union's budget be allocated to improve workers’ welfare; including liberation and rehabilitation benefits, and a separate ministry, plus one to 10 million rupees (US$ 14,300 to US$ 143,000) of compensation for the victims.

* The number in question refers to Article 21 of the Indian constitution, which says “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law".

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