Manual scavenging is banned under law in India. Yet, municipal authorities of all urban Indian cities, including the Capital, deploy manual cleaning of drains and sewerage. It's not a pretty sight as young men, stripped to a brief pair of shorts, enter the manholes clogged with stinking slurry. Household sludge, faecal matter and garbage is manually hauled out in buckets and dumped on the road-side before another set of workers clears the mess. This is a sight that most citizens choose not to see or turn a blind eye to.
With monsoon round the corner, this manual clearing of drains is a common sight along the city roads. As part of preparations to prevent waterlogging, this cleaning-up exercise is an annual feature. Unfortunately, often the civic authorities leave this till the last minute and often, before the hauled-out mass can be cleared, rains set in, washing it right back into the drains.
Thousands of sanitation workers die every year across the country while cleaning sewers. Categorised as an occupational hazard, the workers die after entering drains and manholes at the end of a harness strapped to their backs. High temperatures inside the sewers, slippery walls and floors as well as toxic gases are said to be the cause. But most die due to delayed and inadequate medical attention. The workers also suffer from a number of diseases contracted during the course of their work, including skin infections and respiratory ailments. No safety gear is provided apart from a rope slung across the shoulder as a harness.
Why, one wonders, when modern mechanical devices, including powerful suction pumps, are available, authorities continue to deploy workers to manually clear the drains. In a heartening move, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal at a meeting with his officials last week to review flood control measures, stressed upon the need to shift from manual cleaning to mechanised mode. Hopefully, we will soon see this implemented.