On Sunday, a man was killed after being exposed to toxic gases while cleaning a sewer behind the Lok Nayak Hospital. This is the 10th such death of a manual scavenger in the city in just over a month.Soumya Pillaispeaks to Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, about how government agencies and private contractors are exploiting the poor despite laws against manual scavenging.
Soon after Sunday’s incident, you had gone to the Lok Nayak Hospital and met the family of the victim. What were your observations there?
What I found was complete lack of apathy and concern from the authorities. Everybody was busy passing the blame. This is a crime. A murder that has been committed by the government and they need to take responsibility.
I also met the family members, who had no clue about what had happened. These people work as daily wagers, and get something around Rs. 500 to Rs. 600 a day. Only to sustain their family, they are even willing to step inside sewers.
When I spoke to the family members of the victim, they were afraid to even name the contractor.
Despite laws in place, why is manual scavenging so prevalent?
It is only because the government does not care about the lives of people from lower castes. This is the 10th such death in the city, and in most cases it was found that manual scavengers were hired by government agencies such as the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), Public Works Department (PWD) and the municipal corporations.
The government should be held responsible for these deaths and the agencies concerned should be booked under the SC/ST Act.
How do you think the situation for manual scavengers in the city can be improved?
The situation can only be improved if there is complete ban on manual scavenging.
The law states that no human being should step into a sewer or a drain to clean it. Why should the underprivileged suffer because you do not have a proper mechanism to flush down your waste?
I had written separate letters to the Chief Minister and the Lieutenant-Governor, asking them to get in touch with establishments such as malls, restaurants and hospitals, and get undertakings from them that they will not indulge in or allow manual scavenging to be practised.
But everything has fallen on deaf ears. I don’t know how many people will have to die before the authorities wake up.