Two years after machines emblazoned with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s photos were launched, Delhi's effort to mechanise sewer cleaning to end manual scavenging and rehabilitate sanitation workers has failed: less than 3% workers benefited and 20 lost their lives cleaning sewers and septic tanks over this period. Third of a five-part series
New Delhi: It’s an hour before dusk, and a blue vehicle the size of a small truck is backing into a congested lane in a southern neighbourhood in India’s teeming capital city. Dust-caked cars and motorcycles line the road in Srinivaspuri, under a menacing mesh of electricity wires. Two sanitation workers guide the driver as he reverses the vehicle, inch-by-inch, dodging a low-hanging wire here, a vehicle’s rear view mirror there and steers slowly to the end of the narrow lane. When he parks, the workers remove long iron hooks from the vehicle and use them to lift the lid of a blocked manhole, revealing a bubbling, filthy drain.
They manually shovel the sludge from the drain onto the road, then pull out a giant hose from what is called a sewer-cleaning machine. Its metal nozzle is pitched into the depths of the manhole. As the driver starts the jet, the sanitation worker, bent at the edge of the manhole, loops the hose and starts turning it to and fro, making it spin. He does this for 15 minutes.
Each time the hose gets stuck, he tugs at it, often soliciting his colleague’s help. When the drain has been successfully unclogged, he moves to the next manhole and repeats the drill. He straightens his back, wipes the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve, and takes a brief break. He looks up, panting, his face muscles scrunched.
Despite human assistance, these machines are often not powerful enough to clear the filthy sewers in India’s cities, clogged with sewage and other assorted garbage, such as wrapping, polythene bags and plastic bottles. In such cases, a more powerful machine is called to complete the job.
The machine in Srinivaspuri is one of 200 sewer-cleaning machines that were launched by the Delhi government in February 2019. The objective: to end the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitate sanitation workers by making them owners of these machines.
Two years after the launch, little appears to have changed for the capital’s sanitation workers, less than 3% of whom, according to our calculations, have benefitted. Even if the scheme counts as a step in the march of mechanisation, the tragedies persist.
Twenty sanitation workers, almost all of whom come from a Dalit caste, have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks over two years to 2021. Rehabilitation mostly remains a bureaucratic article, and the constitutional promise of dignity of the individual remains elusive.
Manual scavenging refers to cleaning or removing human excreta using hands from toilets, sewers or septic tanks, done most by the Valmiki community, a Dalit sub-caste. India outlawed manual scavenging in 1993 and prohibited the construction or maintenance of dry latrines (toilets which do not use a flush and where excreta must be cleaned manually).
Twenty years later, The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSRA) widened the ambit of prohibition to include sewers and septic tanks. It also mandated a survey of manual scavengers for their identification and subsequent rehabilitation.
Despite laws against it, manual scavenging is as alive as ever. In the first of a five-part investigation, we examined the failed history of the legislative attempts to outlaw manual scavenging and in the second part, we looked at how government and law enforcement collude so families are forced to work in the same degrading conditions generation after generation. The third part evaluates the impact of Delhi’s new machines.
Delhi's Man-Machine Push
The new machines are mounted on a vehicle the size of a pickup truck, and use grabbing (the removal of silt with a mechanical claw), jetting (high-pressure streams of water from a hose) and rodding (rods rotating at high speeds to break the mass of sludge) to clear blockages in Delhi’s 8,100 km sewerage network.
Two types of sewer-cleaning machines were already in use in the capital before 2019. The nature of the complaint, the width of the road, and the availability of machines decide which machine will be deployed, explained a junior engineer at Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the government department responsible for the supply of clean water and disposal of sewage in the capital.
A tender was issued for ownership of the new machines and preference given to those who had lost a family member to manual scavenging, sanitation workers, and members of the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities. Each machine cost Rs 40 lakh and selected owners had to pay Rs 400,000 upfront while the balance came from a State Bank of India (SBI) loan, repayable at 11.1% interest over five years.
The nature of ownership distinguished the new Delhi government machines from the other two types of sewer-cleaning machines. Unlike the latter, owned mostly by wealthy contractors, sanitation workers and people from SC communities owned the newest, most advanced machines. The arrangement between the private owners of the machines and the DJB, however, remained the same with all three machines—the owners operated and maintained the machines, while the DJB coordinated the operation and paid the service bill.
At present, 189 of these machines operate in Delhi—the loan of 11 applicants was not approved. Another 100 promised by the government in October 2019 are still in the pipeline.
“These machines will put an end to the practice of sanitation workers entering manholes and septic tanks for cleaning,” chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had said as he flagged off the machines in February 2019.
Even though the Delhi government’s role was limited to allotting the machines and hiring them for work, the vehicles had big photos of Kejriwal pasted on both sides.
Was Kejriwal’s forecast accurate? How successful have the machines been in ending manual scavenging?
Did The Machines Change Lives?
Since the machines were launched, 20 sanitation workers have died in Delhi—seven in sewers after descending manholes and 13 in septic tanks, as per data provided by Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a two and a half decade old movement working to eradicate manual scavenging in India.
The social justice and empowerment ministry on 2 February 2021 told the Lok Sabha that 36 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in Delhi in the five years to December 2020. Experts said these figures were an underestimation. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, in a press conference in September 2019, said 64 deaths were recorded in Delhi’s sewers since 1993. Thirty eight of these occurred in the last two years, the Commission said.
“People often call private workers to unclog the sewers. They are not experienced and sometimes a mishap takes place.” said a superintending engineer (SE) at DJB, who oversees the operation of sewer cleaning machines. “The DJB has no role in this.” He requested anonymity, as he is not authorised to speak to the press.
“Also, the septic tanks are built by individuals and DJB does not maintain them. But we are figuring out a solution for that too,” said the engineer. “We are going to purchase 200 machines for septic-tank cleaning. They’ll be the same size as the sewer cleaning machines. They will have a tank on board, go to an individual’s house, and clean their septic tank.”
The engineer said the new sewer-cleaning machines sanctioned by the Delhi government could access most lanes in the national capital. “There are places where you’ll find lanes as narrow as 3 ft. What do you do then? But with the machines we have, we can cover 99.9% of the area.”
The idea of enabling sanitation workers to become owners of machines, or ‘sani-entrepreneurs’ as the then DJB chairman and Aam Aadmi Party leader Rajendra Pal Gautam described it, certainly seemed well-intentioned. But its potential to rehabilitate them has thus far shown limited success.
The scheme could make only 200 persons owners, and employ another 600 at the most–a driver and two workers per machine. SKA’s conservative estimates peg the number of sanitation workers in Delhi at 30,000 (this number keeps changing as some leave when they find better work, and others are forced to sign up due to joblessness, etc.).
The gap between the two figures shows the limited impact of the government’s effort.
Machine Allotment and Operation
A closer look at the scheme reveals its strengths and weaknesses. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), a body that promotes business enterprises among Dalits, played a crucial role in mooting and steering this model. The same model was first launched in Hyderabad in 2017.
“It became quite popular and word even reached the prime minister’s office (PMO). The MD of Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board went and gave a presentation there. Everybody appreciated it,” said Ravi Kumar Narra, national working president of DICCI. “Under this model, those who have been doing this work for years could now become contractors. Otherwise, mostly when mechanisation happens, the control goes into the hands of the wealthy.”
Officials of DJB were also present at the meeting at PMO and later a team from the department went to Hyderabad to study the model. DICCI was instrumental in identifying the opportunity, and potential owners, and assisting them in putting together documents for the tender process, Narra said.
Of the 189 who received machines in Delhi, he added, eight had lost a family member to manual scavenging, 48 were sanitation workers, and the rest were members of the SC community. There were 40 women, eight of them from the general category.
These contractors do not manage and operate the machines themselves. It’s done on their behalf by Smart Green Infra & Logistics Management India Pvt. Ltd., a firm whose managing director is none other than DICCI’s Narra.
The firm hires staff for the machines, oversees their operation and maintenance, handles all the paperwork on behalf of owners, and acts as a single-window service provider to the DJB. In return, it takes a 5% cut from monthly billings.
The rate for the machine’s running has been fixed at Rs 17.35 per metre and the machine can run up to 500 m a day, ensuring that its monthly earning is between Rs 225,000 and Rs 250,000. After deductions—EMI of Rs 80,000, the salaries of three workers Rs 50,000, CNG Rs 10,000, maintenance charges, taxes, 5% cut to Smart Green, and 5% towards a security deposit to DJB—owners usually get Rs 30,000-40,000 every month.
Smart Green Infra arranged for Article 14 to meet some of the owners.
Gurmeet Kaur, 47, a housewife with four sons, lives in Dr Ambedkar Colony in Delhi’s Chhattarpur. Her husband Swaran Singh was among four men who died while cleaning a rainwater-harvesting tank at a farmhouse in Ghitorni in July 2017. The men had no idea that the house owner was releasing kitchen and toilet waste in the tank. They died of asphyxiation. Her son Jaspal tried to enter the tank to save his father but he fainted and was pulled out in time by others.
Kaur said she had received six payments from her machine ever since she became the owner, sometime around mid 2019–Rs 130,000, Rs 80,000, Rs 20,000, Rs 70,000, Rs 125,000 and Rs 150,000. The payments varied from owner to owner depending on the run of the machine, and were often an accumulated amount for two or three months.
Moreover, the machines became operational four to five months after the launch, and the Covid-induced economic crisis caused a hiatus in payments for four to six months.
Twenty-five year old Preeti’s husband Mohan was among the three who died while cleaning a sewer drain in Lajpat Nagar in August 2017. Preeti, a peon at the directorate of civil defence, said she had received four payments so far of Rs 50,000, Rs 80,000, and two of Rs 30,000 each. Ajay Kumar, 48, whose brother Joginder died in the same accident, said he had received a total of Rs 4 lakh so far.
“But I don’t know how much is going where. The monthly bills go up to Rs 240,000 at times. I don’t understand where the money is going or how much I am getting every month,” said Kumar, adding that they were promised an earning of Rs 40,000-50,000 a month.
Some have cast aspersions on the allotment process.
“I was in the DJB meeting and had raised a question about who the 200 people selected for the machines were and the formula used to choose them,” said Jai Prakash, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. Officials of the SKA too said they had little idea about the identities of the allottees.
The answer to how emancipatory the mechanisation effort has been lies in its execution, said Vishwajeet Yadav, national coordinator, SKA. “The government must conduct training and capacity building of sanitation workers so that they can learn how to operate and manage the machines,” he said. “Otherwise big firms will procure the machines, control them centrally, and the workers will get further marginalized. The workers must be supported initially, and later they’ll be strong enough to compete with others.”
Bezwada Wilson, the founder and national convener of SKA, said it was very difficult for those who were actually engaged in manual scavenging work to own one of these machines. “Those who clean the septic tanks, they are the poorest among the community. They can’t be expected to even pay Rs 10,” Wilson said. “How will they make a payment of Rs 4 lakh? And they’ll be scared even at the thought of taking a Rs 36 lakh loan. The government has to buy and provide the machines.”
The DJB SE said that even if the government were to buy the machines, how would it decide who they should be given to? “And then there’ll be allegations of favouritism from all quarters. Floating tenders is the best way to go. It’s a procedure that is used worldwide,” he said.
Another Dog And Pony Show?
Wilson said the budget allocation towards rehabilitation of manual scavengers took a hit after 2014. He's right. It fell sharply from Rs 70 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 5 crore in 2015-16. The allocation for the succeeding financial years was Rs 1 crore and Rs 5 crore respectively.
But then it rose to Rs 70 crore in 2018-19 and the next year, was raised further to Rs 100 crore. The actual expenditures in those two years—2018-19 and 2019-20—were roughly Rs 85 crore, the highest in a decade. In the year 2020-21, the budget allocation fell, once again, to Rs 30 crore.
As regards the advancement in sewer-cleaning technology, Wilson said “these new machines, too, are just repackaging of existing technology”. The government is not investing in technology development either, he added, and is rather dependent on private parties to do it, which will eventually result in rising machine costs.
In November 2020, the union minister for housing and urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri announced that the central government aimed to mechanise sewer and septic cleaning in 243 cities by April 2021. In addition, the ministry of social justice and empowerment said that it would directly transfer funds to sanitation workers to buy the machines.
“There are more than 4,000 statutory towns in India. The scheme is only for 243. That too has just been launched. There is no mention of how it will be done. The government has till date not even identified those who are engaged in manual scavenging work,” said Wilson. “You only have speeches and launches and events. But there is no preparedness, no serious will to eradicate manual scavenging.”
(Salik Ahmad is a Delhi-based independent journalist.)
This reportage was supported by the Thakur Family Foundation. The Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this report.