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Hundreds protest in New Delhi against deaths of sewage cleaners

Hundreds have gathered in India's capital to protest against the continued practice of manual scavenging, after the deaths of sewage cleaners, who are from a 'low-caste' background and forced to enter the sewers to unclog drains and remove human waste with their bare hands. 

The Indian government's statistics indicate that “at least one Indian worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017”. 

However, this number has been disputed by organisations such as the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis (NCSK) which notes that from the data it has collected there have been 123 deaths in sewers since the beginning of 2017. 

Manhar Valjibhai Zala, chairman of the NCSK, estimates that since 1993 at least 612 people have died. However, the NCSK admit that these figures are incomplete being “cobbled together based on English and Hindi newspaper articles and figures supplied by 13 of India’s 28 states and territories” meaning the actual figure could be higher. 

The figures also ignore the risk of developing diseases encountered when cleaning dry toilets by hand, which is undertaken by approximately 160,000 predominately Valmiki women.

These protests come as Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushes his 'Swachh Bharat' or 'Clean India' program which claims to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi and his dream of a clean India. 

The campaign claims to have motivated people from different sectors to assist in cleaning India and by doing so evoked “a sense of responsibility” and enabled citizens to become “active participants” in purifying India. 

Whilst the campaign has also stated that it aims to end manual scavenging, campaigners note a lack of political will. 

The practice of manual scavenging has been outlawed in India since 1993 and further legislation was passed in 2013 but despite these moves it has perpetuated. 

The Guardian reports that part of the issues is that scavengers are employed through “several chains of subcontractors and even when police are willing to prosecute an employer, establishing who is culpable can be unclear”. 

Furthermore, state governments are often downplay the issue giving unrealistically low estimates for the number of scavengers working within their borders. 

“Chhattisgarh state claims to have identified only three manual scavengers in its state while Gujarat claims to have just two”. 

The issue is also rooted in the perpetuation of caste-based discrimination which has long plagued India as those of a 'low-caste' background are labelled as unclean and polluted, are forced into manual scavenging. 

Members of the Valmiki community told The Guardian that “when they migrate to Indian cities, they are excluded from any jobs but cleaning”.

Read more here and here