Manual scavenging continues to haunt Tamil Nadu. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an umbrella body working for the welfare of manual scavengers, moved the Madras high court after the state witnessed the second highest number of deaths of manual scavengers.
Forty three people lost their lives in the last five years with 14 losing their lives in 2020 while they were engaged in manual scavenging, a figure which is second only to Uttar Pradesh which stands at 52 in the past five years.
The first bench of the Madras high court represented by Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamurthy ruled that criminal proceedings will be initiated against the civic body chiefs like municipal commissioner or corporation commissioner if people die due to manual scavenging.
The judges observed that “Even after passing stringent orders people are dying in pits. It is really painful to hear that 6 people have lost their lives after the dawn of this year.”
The court observed, “It is high time that the heads of civic bodies are personally held liable to deaths owing to manual scavenging in their territories.”
It said that if any manual scavenging work is reported in Tamil Nadu, the concerned commissioner or civic body chief must be immediately arrested.
On February 14, 2021 three people had lost their lives owing to asphyxiation while they were cleaning the sewage pit of a catering unit at Kancheepuram.
When Murugan, who entered the pit was not responding to calls, his co-workers Bhagyaraj and Arumugam entered the pit to rescue him but all three lost their lives after inhaling toxic fumes.
On February 17 also one person died due to asphyxiation while trying to clean a 30 feet deep well in a residential premises at Saidapet, Chennai whose water was mixed with sewage water following a leak in a sewage pipe line. Workers Ravi and Kasi who entered the well fell unconscious and Ravi succumbed later while Kasi survived.
Samuel Raj, Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) while speaking to IANS said, “Every year more than 20 people die while working as manual scavengers but the figure may go up as there is no proper data available and unless a door to door survey is conducted there will be no proper data.”
The Safai Karmachari Andolan reports that the figures of 43 deaths for the past five years is wrong and that according to the data available with them 69 people have lost their lives.
D Samuel Velanganni of the SKA told IANS, “These are figures we compiled but there may be many more as these people are not at all organized. The government has already declared the state as free of manual scavenging but it goes on unchecked. The court order is a welcome one and the government will now have to take action.”
India has officially banned manual scavenging with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993.
SKA leader Samuel Velanganni said, “We conducted a survey in eight districts of Tamil Nadu in 2019 and found 3000 people engaged in manual scavenging in just eight districts of Tamil Nadu.”