Bengaluru has most manual scavengers in Karnataka, rehab a distant dream

Bengaluru Urban has the highest number of manual scavenger deaths in the state, yet the safety of these workers remains neglected.

Ganganna (name changed) has been working as a manual scavenger, cleaning toilets and drains for the past 25 years in Tumkur. He says that most villagers have almost stopped hiring manual scavengers, but in urban areas like Bengaluru, there is demand for people like him.

Cleaning of STPs cause of death

Bengaluru has a large number of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), mostly in apartments, and many lack mechanised maintenance. When STPs require manual intervention in repairing blocks and cleaning, it is workers like Ganganna who are called to get into the sewage pits. This has led to the institutionalisation of manual scavenging. 

In February 2023, two manual scavengers died while cleaning an STP at the Prestige Falcon City, Kanakapura Road. This is not a one off incident. Among the total recorded deaths of manual scavengers in the state since 1993, Bengaluru Urban recorded the highest number with 42 deaths. The rising number of deaths, over the past few years, is largely due to cleaning of STPs. 

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) made it mandatory for all apartments, with more than 20 residential units, to have an STP. This led to an increase in STPs across the city.

“When the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Commission approached KSPCB, the latter made it clear that their priority was controlling pollution and not ensuring workers’ safety,” says Siddharth K J, a member of Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samithi (SKKS), an organisation working towards complete eradication of manual scavenging.

Most STPs are situated underground due to lack of space as well as residents’ expectations of keeping waste out of sight. This leads to toxic gases and when someone goes down to clean, they become dizzy and also die in some cases, explains Maitreyi, state committee member of All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU). Siddharth says workers agree to the low rates for cleaning STPs even at the risk to their lives, just to ensure a steady source of income.

Rehabilitation and alternative career prospects 

In June, the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Development Corporation (KSSKDC) met with SKKS, at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Nagarbhavi, Bengaluru, to discuss rehabilitation programmes and alternative career prospects for manual scavengers across the state. They are also planning to conduct a survey, across Karnataka, on the alternative careers manual scavengers are interested in so that KSSKDC can organise training programmes.

However, rehabilitation plans are stuck due to lack of reliable data on manual scavengers and the government’s negligence. 

garbage truck
Representative image. Most safai karmacharis end up doing manual scavenging work as well. Pic: Anshul Rai Sharma

Manual scavenging not completely eradicated

Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 (PEMSR Act) banned and criminalised manual scavenging in India. A decade later, neither has manual scavenging been completely eradicated nor has the self-employment scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavengers (SRMS) taken off. In Karnataka, there was no separate unit for manual scavengers until 2017, which was not given a functioning order till 2021, let alone state rules. “Karnataka had no state rules to regulate manual scavengers, and we formulated these rules and submitted them to the government. It has been accepted and is now with the legal department for further proceedings,” says Chandrashekar, Assistant Professor at NLSIU. 

Issues with data and identification 

In Karnataka, the survey for identification of manual scavengers is done at three levels. “Under Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR), the survey happens at the rural level, while at the urban level it is done by the Directorate of Municipal Administration (DMA). Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has a separate database for Bengaluru,” says a caseworker at Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Commission.

Karnataka has identified 7,493 manual scavengers. Bengaluru has the highest number, with conflicting data on identification. BBMP has identified 1,625 manual scavengers, whereas Bengaluru Rural and Urban, as per RDPR and DMA, has 221 manual scavengers. Eligibility remains a concern, with nearly half of the identified manual scavengers in Karnataka not included in the national data, revealing lack of clarity in identification and surveys.

Manual scavengers engage in liquid waste cleaning of drainage and latrines. Whereas safai karmacharis engage in solid waste management, which includes sweeping and segregating garbage. Most people who work as safai karmacharis end up doing manual scavenging work as well. “We call them informal sanitation workers, since no government or organisation has data on them,” says K B Obalesh, state convener of SKKS. There are about 50,000 informal sanitation workers in Bengaluru, he claims.

“Every apartment, hospital, private company, and other institutions will have or find someone to clean their toilets and drains. Since they do both kinds of work, the local officials leave them out of the survey,” he adds. 

Welfare schemes not effective

In Karnataka, One Time Cash Assistance (OTCA) of Rs 40,000 has been distributed to about 70% of the identified manual scavengers. While apparently, due to banking and technical issues, the OTCA for the rest has been delayed. While the OTCA per person is fixed, as per NSKFDC, the additional rehabilitation financial assistance is distributed, varying from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh, across the districts of Karnataka, with ambiguity over the varying costs. Which district gets how much per person and who decides this cap is not clear within the very department. 

“There is delay in decision making at every step as the state level monitoring committee meets infrequently,” says Obalesh. The state level monitoring committee is required to meet twice a year. However, so far only one formal meeting was held in 2016-17, post which no proper meetings were held.”

KSSKDC was established in 2017 to separate manual scavengers’ issues from other SC/ST issues, and full functioning power was given to them in 2021. “We will work closely with all districts to bring uniformity in developments across the state,” promises Mallikarjun, managing director at KSSKDC. However, that is not sufficient as there is major miscommunication between departments in the state. 

Manual scavenging can be eradicated from the state only with the coordination of other departments, as it is not merely about a career change programme, but ensuring basic human rights to those who have been denied it for ages now. Since most of manual scavengers belong to the SC/ST community, they have been assigned to the Department of Social Welfare. “To tackle this issue, we need coordination from the housing, health, education, labour and skill development departments as well,” says Obalesh. The bureaucrats are unaware of the rehabilitation programmes. One example is the health department should offer free health cards to all manual scavengers, but the authorities are unaware of this, which explains its lack of implementation. 

NGOs working towards eradicating manual scavenging

Safai Karmachari Andolan/ Safai Karmachari Kshemabivruddhi Sangha

No. 4, 1st Main Road, Sheshadripuram, Hanumanthappa Colony, Bengaluru-20

Phone number: 8951301349

Thamate

No. 128, 4th cross, Belekahally Layout IIMB Post, Bannerghatta Main Rd, Bengaluru-76

Phone number: 97425 86468


Read more: Government apathy leads to two more manual scavenging deaths in Bengaluru


Prioritising rehabilitation

On paper, the PEMSR Act is holistic and idealistic, however there is no effective implementation. “Begin by recognising them, provide the OTCA accordingly until the rehabilitation training programme is completed and then give alternative careers with accessibility to loans. The lack of these sequential steps and the many gaps in the process does not give them much of an option but to go back to manual scavenging,” says Siddharth. “Menial OTCA and weak education and health schemes will not get them out of this occupation. They need a viable alternative employment as a solution to eradicate manual scavenging,” adds Maitreyi. 

At a recent meeting with KSSKDC, SKKS representatives raised several concerns on the rehabilitation process. Some of the suggestions were to ask the government to provide lands without a distance limit, issue tenders directly to workers instead of to contractors, and request for reservation in schools and colleges, etc. KSSKDC has promised to take the matter forward. 

Centre and state must work in co-ordination

Union minister for State, Social Justice and Empowerment, A Narayanswamy said that manual scavenging was still in practice due to inadequate support from officials, politicians and other authorities in curbing it. Even as multiple NGOs like Safai Karmachari Andolan/ Safai Karmachari Kshemabivruddhi Sangha, Thamate and SKKS are working towards eradicating manual scavenging in the state, change is only possible if there is coordination between the national and state safai karmachari corporations as well as inter-departmental cooperation within the state government. 

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