With increasing reports of deaths of manual scavengers, including in the national capital, anti-manual scavenging crusader and Magsaysay awardee Bezawada Wilson says nothing less than a complete overhaul of the country's sewage system will eradicate the "dirty job" tradition.
He also took a jibe at the Swachh Bharat campaign including construction of toilets, saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not speak on incidents like the one that claimed three lives in a Delhi sewer.
The muck-filled depths of sewers and their toxicity have devoured about 70 people this year in Delhi alone.
"They (authorities) are not concerned about who cleans the filth. They are big on talk about making toilets for people and everything, but they do not want to know who cleans them," Wilson told IANS in an interview.
The national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan (Sanitation Workers' Movement) demanded a central government initiative for modernising the country's sewage system and that states must be made accountable for failures on their part.
"There has to be a policy intervention from the Centre. It must come up with a plan for the entire country stating very clearly its intentions. All state government must come up with a comprehensive plan for the modernisation of the sewage system," he said.
He also expressed his anger at the central and state governments for their "apathetic" attitude towards such deaths.
"Why can't the Prime Minister speak a word on the incident? He has time to celebrate Rakhi with widows, but are those left behind by the three dead men any less widows? He is in the city, why can he not visit their houses," he asked.
"Every time such an incident occurs, I write a letter to the authorities. I have written to (Delhi Chief Minister) Arvind (Kejriwal) several times on this issue, but I never received a reply," he said.
The Delhi government has since announced a compensation of Rs 10,00,000 each for the kin of the three men and a job for one family member.
Under attack over "negligence", the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) has said it has the required safety equipment and that it's the labourers who are not keen on wearing them while going into the sewers. On August 12, two brothers died while cleaning a sewage tank without safety gear at a mall in east Delhi.
However, Wilson, an activist for more than 30 years, refused to buy this and insisted that the safety equipment was outdated and of no use.
"They have very limited machinery; whatever they have is not updated and even the 'safai karmacharis' (sanitation workers) are not trained to use them... As far as gear is concerned, their gloves don't fit, and what use are the gum boots when you would be standing in filth which comes up to your waist," he asked.
When asked whether the government can be faulted when the accident happened under the supervision of a private contractor who was operating beyond the purview of the civic authorities, the activist shot back: "The Delhi government owns the sewers of the city. Anything happens in them is their responsibility. You (the civic authorities) have sub-let the work, who have further sub-let it to other contractors. But if something goes wrong, the primary responsibility still lies with the government."
Three persons had died in the Jalvayu Vihar area of Lajpat Nagar on Sunday when they inhaled toxic gases while cleaning a sewer. One of the survivors has alleged that they were hired by a private contractor to clean the sewer. The contractor has since been on the run.
(Vishal Narayan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)