[op-ed snap] Slow on sanitation

Note4students

Mains Paper 2: Governance | mechanisms, laws, institutions & Bodies constituted for the protection & betterment of these vulnerable sections

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Constitutional r provisions to end manual scavenging and their lax implementation leading to loss of lives.


NEWS

CONTEXT

The tragic death of six people who entered a septic tank in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur town is a grim reminder that sanitation remains a low-priority area despite the high political profile of Swachh Bharat.

Why these events are recurring?

  • Public understanding of the science of managing septic tanks continues to be poor.
  • the availability of cheap labour to clean these structures has slowed efforts to develop technologies that can safely remove and transport the waste.
  • Sanitation thus remains a challenge in thousands of unsewered towns.

Particulars about this incident

  • What sets the incident apart from the several instances of people dying of asphyxiation in the tanks is that some of the victims were the owners of the property and not workers.
  • Although workers were not affected in this case, it confirms Tamil Nadu’s abysmal overall record at raising sanitation standards.

Data regarding casualties due to unsafe sanitation practices

  • Since 1993, when the first law was passed against manual cleaning, there were at least 144 worker deaths in Tamil Nadu as of November 2018, according to official data reported to the Centre for grant of compensation.
  • Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab also fared badly with a cumulative toll of 146 lives lost during that period.
  • But this is obviously a gross underestimate, since the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has litigated in the Supreme Court seeking to aggressively prosecute offenders, contends that septic tank cleaning claimed nearly 1,500 lives between 2014 and 2016.
  • More reports of deaths continue to come in.

Provision to prohibit manual scavenging

  • Every death of a manual worker represents a crime, since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 makes the use of such labour to clean septic tanks an offence punishable with imprisonment of two years or with a fine of ₹2 lakh or both even in the first instance.

State government’s failure to act responsibly

  • State governments are reluctant to prosecute offenders,
  • They are also slow to adopt newer technologies such as Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTP), which can be combined with omniprocessors for safe treatment of waste.

Use of Technology to address concerns

  • For the task of cleaning the tanks, indigenous innovation in robotics looks promising.
  • A prototype is planned to be tested by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and such devices can potentially transform sanitation in India and other developing countries.
  • But the pace of adoption will depend on the priority that governments accord to the long-neglected problem.
  • Last year, Tamil Nadu, and some other States, notably Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, announced plans to scale up FSTP infrastructure.
  • This is a task that deserves the highest importance, and needs to be completed on deadline.

Conclusion

  • What happened in Sriperumbudur highlights the heavy price that communities pay for the lack of scientific sanitation.
  • If governments remain apathetic, citizens would expect the courts to step in to uphold the law against manual scavenging and make individual departments accountable.
  • The science on sanitation has advanced, and policy must urgently catch up.
Swachh Bharat Mission
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