A civil society report, giving details of 18 deaths of manual scavengers across the national capital since 2017, has regretted that these have occurred with “growing in frequency” despite the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which mandates that sending people to manually clean sewers, sewerage facilities and septic tanks without safety equipment, training and protection is a grave offence that carries stringent penalties.
The report, prepared by the top human rights organization, People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), titled, “Chronic ‘Accidents’: Deaths of Sewer/Septic Tank Workers, Delhi, 2017-2019”, says that the Act has “come to be better known through the frequency and impunity with which it is violated.”
The report examines the circumstances of the death of Swarn Singh, Deepak, Anil, Balwinder in on July 15, 2017; of Joginder, Annu and an unknown person on August 6, 2017 in Lajpat Nagar; of Mohd Jahangir and Mohd Ejaz on August 12, 2017 in Aggarwal Fun City Mall, Anand Vihar; of Amarjeet and Makhan Lal in Mundka on September 18, 2017; of Umesh Tiwari, Mrityunjay Kumar Singh, Mohd Sarfaraz, Vishal and Pankaj Kumar Yadav in DLF Capital Greens, Moti Nagar on September 9, 2018; and of Ganesh Saha and Deepak in Bhagya Vihar on May 7, 2019.
Even as providing details of the deaths of these 18 persons, the report laments that “questions of lack of safety gear and absence of proper training of workers sent to clean sewers/septic tanks seems to dominate public discussion on the issue”, underlining, “Fundamental questions around whether manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks should be permitted or not, mostly evade the debates both in the law and outside.”
Sewers in Delhi seem to be remembered when they get blocked and people die while cleaning them. This is certainly true of a large number of inhabitants of the national capital, including municipal planners and policy makers. For those who routinely enter sewers and septic tanks to manually clean them, they are very real, sources of a living – and of death.
Delhi has a population of about 19 million at present. Plans for waste disposal and sewerage have had to take the population and its density, and land use pattern into account. Water supply availability is essential for setting up a modern sanitation system and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) is the body responsible for both drinking water supply and the collection, treatment and disposal of waste water/sewage system in the National Capital Territory (NCT).
According to the Sewerage Master Plan of NCT, only about 50% of the population is covered by sewerage network and the sewage generated by the rest of the population goes through a number of surface drains into Yamuna River [Sewerage Master Plan for Delhi–2031, DJB, June 2014, Final Report (henceforth Sewerage Master Plan), Vol. 1, p. 19]. The majority of the population living in unauthorized colonies, JJ clusters, and rural villages does not have sewerage facilities.
The city generates large quantities of sewage – amounting to at least about 3,800 million litres per day (mld) according to the official estimates made 6 years ago by the report of the Central Pollution Control Board, 2013. Out of this it has an official design capacity in its 34 Waste Water Treatment Plants to treat 2700 mld of sewage and actually treats about 1543 mld, a utilization of about 57% (Sewerage Master Plan, Vol. II, p. 20-21). The rest of the sewage/waste water from unsewered areas and untreated sewage remains or flows into the river.
The existing sewerage network of Delhi comprises 7,000 km of sewerage lines including trunk sewers and branch lines (peripheral/internal sewers) many of which, according to the official report itself, suffer from disrepair, siltation and settling or collapse. In sewered areas toilet and other waste water from domestic units flows into sewers, while unsewered areas tend to rely more on septic tanks. Waste water and fecal sludge accumulates in these tanks and regular cleaning is needed.
Large cities like Delhi are supposed to have proportionately fewer septic tanks and greater sewerage reach than smaller urban centres, but since many of Delhi’s urban areas are also ‘unauthorized’ the precise numbers of such septic tanks are also difficult to establish. While at least officially, maintenance of state sanctioned sewerage is supposed to be a public and municipal matter, septic tank maintenance is private responsibility, making their monitoring more difficult.
In almost all the incidents discussed in this report (with the exception of Lajpat Nagar) took place while workers were cleaning septic tanks/water tanks into which waste had leaked in. An incident like the one at Bhagya Vihar were at a small house where the owner of the property was also not well off, the one at Ghitorni concerned a tank at a powerful farmhouse owner’s property, and the one at DLF Capital Greens took place when workers were called in to clean the septic tanks of the sewage treatment plant at an elite building complex.
Several incidents in Delhi NCR including the Lajpat Nagar incident (discussed in this report) or the recent incident at Ghaziabad (August 23, 2019) involved the death of workers in sewer lines, while cleaning or setting up sewer connections. Most unsewered areas as well as some sewered areas in the city do not have proper and adequate water supply.
According to the 2011 Census, 81.3% of the households in Delhi apparently had piped water supply, much higher than the national average of 32% but the seasonal shortage is acute, owing to the degraded condition of the river water with the city’s domestic and industrial waste in it, the depletion of ground water etc., compelling the inhabitants of many areas to buy water at exorbitant rates.
Given that many areas where such crisis exists are underprivileged and unregulated this is a significant burden. Those who designed the government’s ambitious policies on sanitation seem to have lost sight of the basic precondition of water supply.
The fact that there are, for instance, a total of 1,725 unauthorised colonies in Delhi, and 1,230 of these got water pipelines by 2018 but the DJB which had set a target of laying water pipelines in another 291 unauthorised colonies in 2018-19 could only complete the work in 144 such localities is essential to understanding the status of these colonies as far as sewerage linkage and toilet construction projects are concerned. It is also essential to know the nature of the delivery of water and if the supply is adequate.
The policies are interlinked and their success and failure are closely interconnected. In actual design urban policy making seems to have lost sight of the need to coordinate these different but interrelated aspects of sanitation and water supply while planning for the city.
Another aspect that policy makers and planners seem to have lost sight of in the much advertised policy push towards sanitation in the present regime is the need for continuous maintenance of sanitation systems and for safe working conditions for those involved in it.
Planners are evidently not required to take any responsibility for the lives and working conditions of those cleaning up sewer lines and septic tanks