Free Press Journal

India’s sewage system needs urgent modernisation: Magsaysay award winner Bezawada Wilson


New Delhi : 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 said.

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.

Wilson also trained his guns at the Delhi government, saying the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, “which has a ‘jhaadoo’ (broom) as its symbol”, had not given any compensation for the victims.

“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However, Wilson, an activist for more than 30 years, refused to buy this and insisted that the safety equipment was outdated and of no use.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.”