- The Maharashtra government has directed all civic bodies in the state to set up Emergency Response Sanitation Units (ERSUs) to ensure safeguards for sanitation workers who clean manholes and sewers, after multiple cases were reported of workers dying from suffocation or inhalation of hazardous gases. Ajay Jadhav explains the earlier steps taken by the central and state governments to prevent such deaths, and why the latest directive was necessary
PEMSR ACT, 2013
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act came into force in 2013. The law prohibits employing manual scavengers, manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and construction of insanitary latrines.
Those violating the law and getting sewers and septic tanks cleaned without protective equipment can face imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to Rs 2 lakh, or both. Repeat offenders will face imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh, or both.
The Supreme Court judgment
- While hearing a case on manual scavenging in 2014, the Supreme Court had stated, “If the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to an end, and also to prevent future generations from the inhuman practice… rehabilitation of manual scavengers will need to include steps to avoid sewer deaths.”
- The court had said that making a sanitation worker enter sewer lines without safety gear should be a crime even in emergency situations. In such instances, if a sanitation worker died due to the unsafe conditions, a compensation of Rs 10 lakh has to be given to the family of the deceased, stated the court.
- The court had also directed authorities to identify the family members of sanitation workers who died while cleaning manholes and septic tanks since 1993, and give a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to them.
Directives by National Commission for Scheduled Castes
- To ensure effective implementation of the law banning manual scavenging, the commission issued various directives. It said workers have to be fully equipped with safety apparatus and oxygen masks in case they have to clean sewers manually. A first information report has to be lodged against officials or contractors responsible for sending a worker to clean sewers manually, without proper gear.
- The commission also made it mandatory for all municipal corporations to get an insurance policy of Rs 10 lakh per worker, as per the Supreme Court’s directions. The employers, in this case the civic bodies, will have to pay the policy premium.
State issues government resolution
- In the wake of the Supreme Court order and the directives by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, the state Urban Development department instructed civic bodies to implement the law banning manual scavenging effectively and also ensure rehabilitation of those involved in the practice.
- The state government also instructed civic bodies to take all possible steps to prevent the deaths of workers who have to clean septic tanks or manholes.
Emergency Response Sanitation Unit (ERSU)
- In its directive on the setting up of ERSUs, the state government said the municipal commissioner of the civic body concerned will be the Responsible Sanitation Authority (RSA). The ERSU should be headed by a senior civic officer and other civic officers should be on the ERSU advisory board to decide the standard operating procedure (SoP) for workers who enter manholes for cleaning purposes.
- The civic body will also have to set up a dedicated toll-free number for the ERSU. The unit will impart training to sanitation workers. Only workers trained and certified by an ERSU will be able to clean sewers, but the priority will be on using machines to get such work done.
- In case a worker dies while cleaning a sewer, the civic body will have to hold an inquiry and register a police complaint.
Workshop on creating awareness on the issue
- All civic bodies have been asked to hold workshops to raise awareness on this issue in their respective jurisdictions. The workshops are going to focus on latest technology for cleaning sewers and septic tanks, and the final objective is to find a way to clean septic tanks or manholes with machines.
- The workshops will have sessions on laws pertaining to sanitation workers, the establishment of ERSUs and their roles, presentations on the latest equipment, machines and protective gear. Sanitation workers, NGOs, social organisations, housing society members and government officials have to participate in the workshops.