Manual Scavenging kills three workers in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu

On 20th March, three workers, K. Jayakumar, S. Velu and S, Murugan, residents of hamlets around Cuddalore were employed to clear a block in drainage by Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage (TWAD) Board. All three died due to asphyxiation caused by noxious gases in the drainage system. The TWAD board is responsible for water supply and sewage disposal in all of Tamil Nadu, except the Chennai city. The news has been reported in leading dailies in Tamil and English.

The central government act of 2013 abolishing manual scavenging had expanded the definition of manual scavengers (section 2 (g)) to include those who enter into sewers to clear blocks. It also prohibits employment of workers in such activities without proper protective gear {Sec 2(d)}. Even after four years since its passage, hundreds have perished in doing this work while not a single person has yet been convicted for causing death or grievous injury to workers as mandated under the Act {Sec 9, chap 3). This incident comes in the back drop of two similar cases in Bangalore and VIjaywada over the past two weeks.

When contacted on 22nd March, the police refused to entertain any questions, maintaining that all procedures according to law is being adhered to. They even refused comment on the acts and sections under which charges have been filed. The post–mortem has been carried out and the bodies have been returned to the families for last rites. The relatives had staged a protest at the hospital on 20th March, after which the police had assured compensation. As of last information, the family members have been received at the Cuddalore collectorate to receive the compensation. In 2014, the Supreme Court mandated that each family be paid a compensation of Rs 10 lakh. An investigation, under the RDO, has been ordered into the incident by the Collector

Safai Karamchari Andoloan (SKA), in a petition to the collector, has sought that the concerned officials from TWAD be charged under the provisions of the Abolition of Manual Scavengers Act (2013) as well as under the SC&ST (prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015 as two of the workers who perished were from Dalit communities. In their press statement they had also highlighted that formation of Sewarage Workers Forum, on 19th March, to fight the scourge of Manual Scavenging.

Over 100 members of CPI(M), district committee had staged a road block protest at Cuddalore General Hospital demanding that the responsible persons be prosecuted under the law while the families are adequately compensated with cash and job. Members of Viduthalai Chirutaigal (VCK) had also protested the deaths and demanded enhanced compensation and permanent jobs for family members.

Kin of over 141 deceased workers have been compensated by Tamil Nadu government since the Supreme Court order. But there has not been a single instance of punishment to any of the persons who had employed these workers. Most of the workers who die are in the mid 20s, with a long and productive life ahead. This makes a case to revisit the quantum of compensation. But the deeper question is the lack of criminal culpability, which allows those who employ workers in this prohibited task to evade the law. Thus the financial burden is borne by the general public, while the government departments and private contractors continue to enjoy impunity for engaging in this dehumanizing practice. If criminal and civil liability is methods to dis-incentivize such practices, the spate of deaths exposes the gross failure of the democratic institutions that have to implement this law. It is only natural to ponder whether the Himalayan failure of the state to implement this law has its roots in the deeply casteist nature of our society.

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